A Look at Montana

Posted May 23, 2003 at 5:22pm

Politics in Montana is not as clear cut as it may seem.

Like most of the Mountain states, Montana has been a Republican stronghold for years — particularly in presidential elections. But as Big Sky Country slowly changes from a wholly rural state completely dependent on its extractive industries to a hodgepodge of Old West and New West, complete with tourists, high-tech corridors and latte shops, its politics have also changed. [IMGCAP(1)]

President Bill Clinton finished just 12,000 votes behind Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election (though Al Gore did much worse in 2000). And Democrats have gained legislative seats in the past three state elections. Republicans now hold a 53-47 majority in the House and a 29-21 edge in the Senate.

Coincidentally or not, Montana is also home to two nonprofit organizations dedicated to political reform: Project Vote Smart, which aims to inform voters about candidates and elections, and the Center for the Study of Money in State Politics.

“Democrats went through a decade of drought, but signs are that the dry times are ending,” said former Rep. Pat Williams (D), who is now on the faculty at the Center for the Study of the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

Montana Republicans score, Williams said, when they play to the fears of farmers, ranchers and miners who worry their old way of life is in jeopardy.

“It’s still difficult for Democrats in the northern Rockies because the transitions

here — demographic and economic — have created a climate of fear, and Democrats have never found a way around it,” he said.

A former Montana Republican legislator who did not want to be named said Democratic gains are merely cyclical.

“It’s the natural swing of the pendulum,” he said.

Nevertheless, heading into the all-important 2004 elections — when all statewide non-federal offices, the entire state House, half the state Senate and Montana’s at-large House seat will be on the ballot — Democrats are more optimistic than they’ve been in years.

Bob Ream, chairman of the Montana Democratic Party, said some people have not taken notice of his party’s recent gains because the GOP has held the governorship for 14 years.

“They’ve had the bully pulpit,” he said.

But now it is the Republican control of the governorship that has Democrats so giddy.

First-term Gov. Judy Martz (R) is sagging in the polls, and already a former longtime state lawmaker from Billings, Tom Keating (R), has announced his intention to challenge her in a GOP primary. Others — including the highly visible Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown (R) — could follow.

Martz, who was plucked from political obscurity — she was running Sen. Conrad Burns’ (R) Butte office — by then-Gov. Marc Racicot (R) to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office, was elected to the statehouse in a fairly close race in 2000. She has said she will announce sometime around the state Republican convention in late June whether she’ll seek re-election.

If Martz does not run again, the Republican floodgates are bound to open. Brown is almost certain to get in the race. So is Ken Miller, a former state Senator and businessman who is the state GOP chairman. State legislative leaders like Senate President Bob Keenan (R), Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas (R) and House Majority Leader Roy Brown (R) might also follow suit. Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs (R) is another possibility.

The Democrats already have one candidate running. Brian Schweitzer, the mint farmer from Whitefish who almost upset Burns in the 2000 Senate race, has already raised more than $250,000 for the gubernatorial contest — a substantial sum in Montana — and is already touting a variety of what one Treasure State political observer described as “pragmatic populist positions.” Several Democrats believe that without a bloody primary, Schweitzer can defeat Martz easily, and would run competitively with just about any other Republican.

But Schweitzer may not have the field all to himself. Former state Auditor Mark O’Keefe (D), who lost to Martz by 16,000 votes in 2000, is thinking about entering the race. So is state Attorney General Mike McGrath (D), who was runner-up in the 1992 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy (D) is also a distant possibility — though he is considered far more likely to run for secretary of state in 2004, especially if the Republican incumbent, Brown, is running for something else. So is former state Attorney General Joe Mazurek (D).

All other races in 2004, and even those in 2006 — the contenders, the story line, the dynamic — will flow from the governor’s race.

A veteran statehouse lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that beyond the capital, Martz may be doing better than political insiders think.

“When you get outside of Helena, she’s pretty popular across the state,” the lobbyist said. He noted that during the 2000 campaign, O’Keefe “was sort of the darling of the press,” and argued that Martz has paid for it ever since.

Of the state’s three federal officials — Burns, Sen. Max Baucus (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) — only Rehberg is up for re-election in 2004. After a tough first House election in 2000, Rehberg, a rancher and former lieutenant governor, glided to victory in 2002. And even Democrats concede that he will be hard to beat.

Still, there remain Democrats with Congressional aspirations. At the top of the list is state Auditor John Morrison (D), who was included on the Democratic Leadership Council’s most recent list of 100 New Democrats to watch. Morrison, an aggressive public official, is the grandson of a former Nebraska governor.

“He’s steeped in it,” Williams said. “It’s in his genes. He knows how to do it.”

Kennedy, the Yellowstone County commissioner (covering the populous Billings area), is another possible Congressional contender. So is Mazurek, the former attorney general. So are state Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester (D), former Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D), state Rep. Eve Franklin (D), Bozeman County Commissioner John Vincent (D) (who is also a former House Speaker), and Billings Mayor Chuck Tooley (D).

But there is some question about which Congressional seat they would seek. Most of the Democrats probably want to wait until 2006, so they can see what Burns — and Rehberg — decide to do.

Many Montana politicians believe Burns will not seek a fourth term in 2006, when he will be 71. And it is widely assumed that Rehberg has the right of first refusal for the GOP nomination, and that he’s likely to run for Senate if the job is open.

While a viable Democrat might try to run against Rehberg for Senate, the majority of ambitious Democratic politicians are more likely to seek the House seat, though Republicans are sure to put up a strong contender as well — possibly someone who did not get through the gubernatorial sweepstakes.

If Burns retires and Rehberg does not run for Senate, the GOP could turn to Racicot, the former governor who is now chairman of the national party and is expected to become chairman of President Bush’s re-election campaign. But Racicot turned down an opportunity to challenge Baucus, and Montanans are not sure he’ll ever move back to the state.

“He’s pretty well confined himself to Washington, D.C., and what he’s doing back there,” the statehouse lobbyist said.