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First Thoughts: Baucus' ambassadorship gives Democrats a potential 2014 break

Obama selecting Baucus to be ambassador to China gives Democrats a potential 2014 break… The upsides and downsides for Democrats picking Lt. Gov. John Walsh as the replacement for Baucus… Remember, this isn’t the first time the China ambassadorship has been used for political reasons (see: Huntsman, John)… About yesterday’s NSA-reform recommendations… Democrats make their VA sweep official… WaPo: McDonnell was supposed to be charged, but the decision has been delayed… Scott Brown speaks at a NH GOP event… And our Top 10 stories to watch for 2014.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite / AP file photo

*** Baucus’ ambassadorship gives Democrats a potential 2014 break: The news yesterday that President Obama plans to nominate retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) as his next U.S. ambassador to China was a surprising development. (One of the jokes being told: Given the pollution and thorny politics there, this is Obama’s “revenge” for Baucus taking his time on health care during 2009. But the reality is that this is a plum post.) Still, even more intriguing about yesterday’s development are its implications for 2014 and control of the Senate. Ever since Baucus said he wasn’t running for re-election -- and after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) took a pass on running -- Montana has become a clear pick-up opportunity for Republicans, giving them a do-able shot at netting the six seats needed to win back the Senate next year. But yesterday’s news means that the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, gets to appoint a replacement for Baucus, and most observers believe the replacement pick will be Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), who is already running for Baucus’ seat. Putting someone like Walsh in the Senate would boost his name ID, give him the benefits of incumbency (staff, official duties), and potentially clear the Democratic primary (although it seems like fellow candidate John Bohlinger is someone who isn’t easily persuaded to get out of a race). At a minimum, Walsh -- as an appointed senator -- basically moves this race from Lean Republican to Toss Up.

*** The upsides and downsides: But there are downsides for Democrats, too. For one thing, putting Walsh or another Montanan in the Senate puts that person in a body whose approval rating hovers around 10%. As National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring emailed reporters last night, the move would undercut “the lone argument that Democrats have made for John Walsh's candidacy -- that he's from outside of Washington with no attachment to President Obama and the Democratic leadership/agenda.” Remember, the GOP front-runner is a sitting member of Congress, and the anti-Washington message could have been a pretty good counter argument for the Democrats; it’s harder to be anti-Washington if Walsh’s first name is “senator.” Another downside is that, historically, appointed senators don’t have the greatest records of winning office. But recent history contradicts that: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Dean Heller (R-NV) all won their races after being appointed. Still, this is a break for Democrats. And here is why Montana is so important to the 2014 Senate map: If Republicans win in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, then they need three other wins in the four races of Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina. But if they don’t win Montana, then Republicans need to sweep all four of those states. And Republicans have to NOT lose Georgia or Kentucky either…

*** Not the first time the China ambassadorship has been used for political reasons: In addition, it’s important to note that isn’t the first time the Obama White House has used the China ambassadorship for political reasons. Remember, Obama’s first ambassador there was then-Utah Gov. John Huntsman (R), whom the president’s political team back in 2009 viewed as a potential threat in a 2012 general election. (Huntsman ran for president anyway, but having worked for Obama wasn’t seen as a positive by GOP primary voters.) And after Huntsman (who spoke Mandarin) and Gary Locke (a Chinese American), Baucus might seem like a curious choice for U.S. ambassador to China, arguably one of the most crucial relationships to the U.S. economy in particular. But don’t forget he’s been a powerful U.S. senator for years who has some experience when the issue of Most Favored Nation status for China was being shepherded through the Senate. Another observation in all of this: So much for tax reform in 2014, an issue Baucus had wanted to accomplish. Then again, who believed tax reform was that serious anyway? And who gets the Finance gavel? No. 2 on Finance is Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring next year; next up is Ron Wyden.

*** About yesterday’s NSA reform recommendations: As NBC's Pete Williams reports, the group appointed by President Obama to look into government surveillance programs yesterday released a report recommending some big changes, but it also suggested keeping the most controversial programs going. The biggest recommendation was having private telephone/internet companies keeping the data, which then could be accessed by a court order. Williams adds that as for surveillance on foreign leaders, the report recommended cutting that back and exploring agreements with more countries to cease spying on each other's officials. 

*** Democrats complete their Virginia sweep: Another notable political event happened yesterday: Republican Mark Obenshain conceded to Democrat Mark Herring in Virginia’s AG race (Herring was leading in the recount). That concession means that, for the first time since 1989, Democrats swept all three 2013 statewide races -- governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general -- quite a feat in a year that turned out to be so rough for President Obama and the Democratic Party. And when you add the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, Democrats now hold all five MAJOR statewide offices in this important swing state. Thanks to the health-care law rollout, Republicans have enjoyed their best two months in a long, long time. But what happened this year in Virginia should be a considerable warning sign. 

*** WaPo: McDonnell was supposed to be charged, but the decision has been delayed: Don’t miss this other Virginia story: “Federal prosecutors told Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell last week that he and his wife would be charged in connection with a gift scandal, but senior Justice Department officials delayed the decision after the McDonnells’ attorneys made a face-to-face appeal in Washington, according to people familiar with the case,” the Washington Post reports. “Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, told the McDonnells’ legal teams that he planned to ask a grand jury to return an indictment no later than this past Monday, people familiar with the conversations said.” More: “The plan to seek the felony charges this week changed, however, after attorneys for the state’s first couple met with Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole on Dec. 12. The attorneys argued that the governor had done nothing improper to assist businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. In particular, they focused on the credibility of a key witness, said a person familiar with the presentation. They also argued that if prosecutors proceeded with charges, they should wait until after McDonnell left office Jan. 11 to allow a smooth transition of power to Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D).”

*** Scott Brown speaks in New Hampshire: Also on our radar today: Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown speaks at a New Hampshire GOP event beginning at 6:00 pm ET in Nashua, NH, which only will fuel more speculation that he might run for the Senate next year -- in New Hampshire.

*** The Top 10 stories to watch in 2014. Yesterday, we look a look at the 10-biggest stories of 2013; today, we turn our attention to what we think will be the 10-biggest stories for next year.

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