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WASHINGTON (AP) - With control of the Senate at stake in next year's elections, President Barack Obama's decision to name retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus as ambassador to China sets off a chain reaction that could give the White House and Democrats an edge in preventing Republicans from gaining a Senate majority.
The beneficiaries could be Montana's Lt. Gov. John Walsh, a Democrat seeking Baucus' seat, and, thanks to the dominoes of Senate seniority, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is facing a difficult re-election.
The advantages would be on the margins, potentially giving the two Democrats a slight boost. But in a series of close elections with Republicans needing to gain a net of six seats to recapture control of the Senate, any lift for Democrats could help them retain control and protect Obama's agenda.
Though the White House has yet to announce the nomination, several Democratic officials confirmed it and White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that Baucus "has been directly engaged for more than two decades in work to deepen the relationship between the United States and China."
It's not the first time an ambassadorship to China would have protected Obama's political flanks. He nominated Jon Huntsman in 2009, essentially sidelining a potential Republican presidential adversary in the 2012 election.
If Montana's Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appoints Walsh to fill the Baucus seat, as widely expected, that would give the Democratic candidate close to 10 months in the job and higher visibility against the likely Republican candidate, first-term Rep. Steve Daines.
On leaving the Senate, Baucus would give up the gavel of Finance Committee chairman. Potential replacements are Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who has announced he won't seek another term, or Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. If Wyden assumes the chairmanship, then Landrieu would be on track to take over the Senate Energy Committee that Wyden currently chairs.
For Landrieu, the chairmanship of the Energy Committee would give her greater influence over energy policy, an important perch for Louisiana where offshore drilling is a major part of the state's economy. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, a tea party supporter, hope to challenge Landrieu, and Republican outside groups have aired ads seeking to tie her to Obama's health care reform law.
Republicans are targeting vulnerable Democratic incumbents in states carried by Republican Mitt Romney last year, including races in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, and North Carolina. GOP candidates are favored in open seat races in South Dakota and West Virginia and the party hopes to compete in states like Iowa, Michigan and elsewhere to potentially take control. Democrats have fewer opportunities to challenge Republican incumbents but have set their sights on GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
When Baucus announced he would not seek re-election earlier this year, some Democrats had hoped popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer would run for the seat. When Schweitzer declined, party officials courted Walsh, a former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard who served in Iraq. Walsh, who has the support of party leaders like Bullock, Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester, faces former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger in the June 3 Democratic primary.
Republicans have rallied behind Daines, the state's at-large member of Congress who was first elected in 2012.
Independent polls in the state give Daines a solid advantage over Walsh. What's more, Obama's disapproval in the state is higher than the national average and a large majority say his health care law is a failure.
"Democrats are starting at a pretty big disadvantage," said Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm that has conducted recent surveys in Montana.
"This does give Democrats an opportunity to get Walsh into office earlier and start building up name recognition and maybe have more of a chance than he otherwise would," Jensen said.
But some Democrats also acknowledge that while Walsh would likely inherit Baucus's experienced Senate staff and would benefit from the status afforded a U.S. senator, he also would no longer be able to run as a Washington outsider and would develop a voting record that could come under attack.
Republicans no doubt would tag the new senator as a beneficiary of an inside deal engineered by the White House and Senate leaders. Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it would be perceived as "too slick, too slimy, and too `Washington.'"
What's more, once in the Senate Walsh could be subject to attack ads from outside political groups that are permitted to criticize a lawmaker's stance on an issue without calling for his defeat. Such ads would be harder to create against a lieutenant governor.
Still, it's possible Bullock could decide to name someone else to the interim post. Already a liberal group in Washington was calling on him to appoint Schweitzer, former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, or former State Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams to the Senate seat as place holders through the election.
David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, cited data that shows that only about 43 percent of appointed senators who run for their seat win their elections, compared to 85 percent of incumbents.
"Incumbency is about information advantage; what information advantage do you have for six months?" Parker asked. "I don't buy it; I don't think it helps him. I think it's a wash."
Associated Press Writer Donna Cassata contributed to this article