State Watch

In Big Sky Country, a Big Opportunity

Montana has sent a surprising number of Democrats to the Senate. But Republicans have a real chance next year.

By 7.23.13

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In a state as thinly populated as Montana, there aren’t many surprises in major political races, especially when it comes to the top prize — a U.S. Senate seat.

Montana has only one congressional district and a handful of statewide offices. Potential candidates thus have few ways to gain name recognition and put together a credible fundraising network to compete on this, the biggest stage in Montana politics. Given the state’s generally conservative makeup, Democrats have had to be particularly careful about grooming candidates for statewide office, and they’ve been remarkably successful at it. Democrats currently hold both Senate seats, recently began their third consecutive term in the governor’s office, and hold three of the other four non-federal statewide offices.

In light of what has been a remarkable, decades-long display of political surefootedness for Democrats in Montana, it is hard to underestimate the impact of the recent bombshell announcement that former two-term governor Brian Schweitzer won't seek the Senate seat being vacated by long-time Democratic senator Max Baucus. Schweitzer easily won both of his races for the governorship, in no small part by playing up his image as a maverick populist who doesn’t fit the usual Democratic mold. 

Republican operatives are taking credit for Schweitzer’s withdrawal, claiming he feared facing the results of their considerable opposition research (and who knows -- there may be something to their claims). Still, there can be little doubt that Schweitzer, no stranger to mixing it up in a political street fight, would have been a formidable foe against any candidate that Republicans could field. With his exit from the race, the road has suddenly and unexpectedly been cleared for Republicans to capture a seat that has, for the last century, been out of reach.

A little background is in order: Montana is commonly thought of as a “red” state, based on 60 years of reliable votes for Republican presidential candidates. The only Democratic wins during that time period were LBJ carrying the state in his 1964 landslide and Bill Clinton squeaking out a victory in 1992 when Ross Perot carried 26 percent of the Montana vote. But the political reality in Montana has long been more complex, with an interplay of strong labor unions, farm subsidies, and population shifts.

To paint with a broad brush, control of the governorship and the state legislature has historically been divided fairly evenly between the parties, while control of the Senate seats has been overwhelmingly Democratic, anchored by a series of wily multi-term incumbents like long-time Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and the six-term Baucus. In 1988, Conrad Burns became only the second Republican elected to the Senate from Montana since the direct election of senators began in 1913. No Republican has ever been elected to the seat that Baucus is now vacating.

So yes, the fact that Democrats don’t have a high-quality candidate groomed and ready to go for this race is a big, big deal in Montana. Many observers had thought that the best-case scenario for the GOP in 2014 would be a primary election cage-fight between a recalcitrant Max Baucus (with the immense war chest he built up as Senate Finance Committee chairman) and an ambitious Brian Schweitzer anxious to keep his political career rolling while he is still fresh in the minds of voters. That possibility was hinted at by Schweitzer when he not-so-subtly spread the word about preliminary polls that indicated he would beat Baucus in a primary. It is hard to imagine that the prospect of a Schweitzer primary challenge didn’t play a role in Baucus’s decision to retire.

The post-mortems are still coming in on what exactly made Schweitzer decide not to run. The least likely explanation is the one given by the man himself — namely that he didn’t want to become a senator because he is a doer, whereas the Senate is a place where “things go to die.” As with so many things that come out of politicians’ mouths, this has an element of truth, but it doesn’t stand up particularly well to scrutiny. After all, there is a very important thing that hardly ever dies when a man is elected senator: his political career. Any politician with a healthy sense of self-interest and ambition (no one has ever accused Schweitzer of being self-effacing or timid) takes a crack at a Senate race he thinks he can win.

And it is perhaps there — with Schweitzer’s self-interest — that the perfect storm of factors finally formed. Rumors have been flying that the offices of Montana’s junior senator, Democrat Jon Tester, were the source of some of the negative leaks to the press about Schweitzer. Whether or not a fire exists, there has been enough smoke that both Tester and Baucus have felt compelled to deny having been anything but supportive of Schweitzer’s bid. Still, it is no great secret that Schweitzer’s relationship with Democratic Party leaders in Montana has often been, well, complicated.

The Democratic Party in Montana is a pretty tight operation, and members have become used to having their leaders be team players. Senator Baucus in particular is legendary for moving quickly to crush his Republican opponents and then using his political machine and vast financial resources in that election cycle to help Democrats get elected to everything from county commissioner to governor. So far, Senator Tester seems to be cut from the same “team-first” mold. Schweitzer? Not so much. 

Case in point: In the 2010 mid-term elections, Schweitzer poured resources and effort into a single state senate race in Billings, to the point of walking door-to-door in the district campaigning for the Democratic candidate. His target? Republican Roy Brown, who had been his opponent in the 2008 governor’s race and who unsurprisingly had said some not-so-nice things about Schweitzer during the campaign. Schweitzer’s man carried the day in what became the most expensive legislative race in Montana history, winning by four votes. But it was a Pyrrhic victory for Democrats, since Republicans otherwise won every single competitive legislative race in the state and even stole a number of races in Democratic strongholds, racking up big majorities in both chambers. Schweitzer won the race he cared most about, but Democrats were otherwise wiped out statewide. It is the sort of thing that one can’t imagine the more disciplined Baucus or Tester doing.

It is not, therefore, inconceivable for a critical mass of influential Montana Democrats to have decided quietly that they would rather take a pass this time and wait for a different standard bearer. 

So barring an unexpected about-face by either Baucus or Schweitzer, the field is as open as a Republican candidate could hope for. But which Republican? To date, two have thrown their hats in the ring. The first to declare was former state senate minority leader Corey Stapleton, who ran unsuccessfully against former congressman Rick Hill in a crowded 2012 Republican gubernatorial primary (Hill went on to lose the general election to Attorney General Steve Bullock). The other candidate is little-known state Rep. Champ Edmunds. Either would have been long shots against either Baucus or Schweitzer.

The problem for Republicans right now is that while Democrats don’t have any truly big names to run, they have a deeper mid-level bench in the state, given that they have for years dominated non-federal statewide elections in Montana. There are a number of Democrats who have put together statewide organizations and won elections to offices like secretary of state, state auditor, and state superintendent. Running against a Republican who has only won local legislative races: that is a big advantage.

By contrast, the only Republicans to win statewide races in recent years are former secretary of state Brad Johnson, who was defeated in his 2008 re-election attempt, and newly elected Attorney General Tim Fox, who won on his second try. On the federal side, Republicans have former congressmen Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill. But just last year both lost winnable races — Rehberg for Senate and Hill for governor — and neither race was particularly close.

Which leaves one name: first-term Congressman Steve Daines, who easily won his 2012 House race. Daines has the right stuff for winning the 2014 Senate race — a clean background, natural communication skills, proven fundraising ability, and a short tenure in the House that hasn’t yet yielded a string of votes that can be negatively spun by the Democratic opposition. 

Conventional wisdom might say that Daines should rack up a few more terms in the House, build his fundraising network, and wait before leaping into the fray of a Senate bid. But a truly open Senate seat is a rarity, especially in Montana, and this might be the best shot that Daines sees in his political lifetime. That plus the fact that he is the Republican Party’s strongest potential candidate in the 2014 cycle may be enough to convince him to run.

If Daines runs, we can expect that Stapleton and Edmunds will take a page from Daines’ own playbook and step aside, probably entering the House race for the seat that Daines would be vacating. Daines had originally filed to challenge Senator Tester in the 2012 election, but when Congressman Denny Rehberg indicated that he wanted to take on Tester, Daines withdrew from the Senate race and successfully ran for the congressional seat instead. 

As noted above, Democrats have a deep enough bench that they can find a respectable candidate. But Daines would be the clear favorite against any of them. Many Republicans are crossing their fingers, hoping he will roll the dice and give up his safe House seat for a run at the Senate. 

Montana isn’t the only Republican-leaning state with a tradition of electing Senate Democrats in this region. In North Dakota, Democrats dominated Senate races for decades in spite of the fact that Republicans reigned supreme when it came to running the state’s government. South Dakota sent George McGovern and Tom Daschle to the Senate time and again, in spite of Republicans otherwise dominating that state’s politics. 

But eventually things change. North Dakota now has a Republican senator and another Republican barely lost the other seat in 2012. South Dakota can expect to have two Republican senators after the 2014 elections. No one is foolish enough to talk about Republicans controlling two seats in Montana, but this rare alignment of the political stars may deliver one. And for the GOP, that would be a welcome change of senatorial fortune in Big Sky country.

Images UPI.

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About the Author

Bradley Anderson blogs about Montana politics at montanaheadlines.blogspot.com.