What’s Next for Montana GOP?

With Rehberg Staying Put, Party Scrambles for 2008 Challengers

Posted July 9, 2007 at 6:09pm

One of the few rules of politics dictates that incumbents should be spared primary challenges. Candidates who violate the canon frequently pay a heavy price.

But former Montana state Sen. Bob Keenan, who tried to wrest the GOP nomination from then-Sen. Conrad Burns last year, is considered a member in good standing with the Montana Republican Party.

Now party leaders want him to take on Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Democrats worked to make Burns pay for the sins of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff — and possibly his own. Burns ranked high on the list of most vulnerable incumbents the entire 2006 cycle. Keenan, like many Republicans who remained silent, felt Burns’ ethical problems reflected poorly on the party.

He failed to stop Burns in the primary but graciously stumped for him in the general election. He went so far as to appear in several Burns commercials. Nonetheless, Democrat Jon Tester triumphed on Election Day.

Republicans yearn to give Baucus and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) stiff challenges in 2008, but the herd of top-tier candidates thins daily.

Last week the state’s lone Congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), finally put speculation about his political future to rest. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) gave Rehberg the hard sell for months to challenge Baucus, but he demurred.

Democrats speculate that Rehberg is biding his time in the House until 2012, when Tester will stand for re-election.

A knowledgeable Montana Republican who insisted on remaining anonymous said that definitely is not the case.

“I don’t think Rehberg has any burning desire to be in the U.S. Senate,” the source said.

State Rep. Mike Lange (R) kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign on June 29, but he lacks the confidence of many in his party.

His state House colleagues stripped him of his leadership position in March after he ignited a dust-up by ranting, sometimes cursing, at Schweitzer during a meeting of the Legislature.

Given a choice, most Montana Republicans would prefer to see Keenan be their standard-bearer.

Challenging Burns last year actually cast Keenan in favorable light in the eyes of many party stalwarts, according to the GOP source.

Late last year Keenan told the Great Falls Tribune that people have applauded his effort ever since the election.

“I had an awful lot of people call me up and say, ‘You were right.’ … It’s been nonstop,” he told the paper.

Republican insiders agree and think he represents their best chance of taking down Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman.

Keenan has not made a decision but is seriously weighing entreaties from Montana Republicans to enter the race, the GOP source said.

National Republicans have yet to hone in on an alternative to Rehberg but insist that Baucus, especially in a presidential election year, is vulnerable.

“What we’re focused on is that Max Baucus is his own worse enemy,” NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said. “He’s the Senate’s chief taxer.

“At this point we’re working to let the voters know about his record,” Fisher said.

Democrats boast that Lange, and other Republicans still mulling the race, stand no chance.

“Montana has some of the most skillful Democratic campaign operatives in the country who are very aggressive and can be expected to bury whomever runs against Senator Baucus,” said Jim Farrell, executive director of the state party. “Lange is out of the mainstream and has very marginal support.”

But privately, some Montana Democrats concede that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) winds up as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, even a less-than-sterling Republican Senate nominee could give Baucus trouble.

The names of other Republicans get circulated as possible Senate contenders but most look like long shots at best.

Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson, the only Republican holding statewide office, is seeking re-election.

Republicans would welcome former Montana Speaker John Mercer to the Senate race, but he has shown no inclination to return to politics.

Businessman Dean Folkvord, who just sold his chain of well-known delis, also would make a great Senate or gubernatorial candidate, according to Republicans. It is very unlikely that he would run, however.

Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, no relation to John, has long been considered an up-and-comer in the Republican Party. But his high-profile role in the controversy over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys complicates any 2008 calculations.

He recently pulled his nomination to become third-in-command at the Justice Department because he faced significant opposition from Senate Democrats.

Besides being the bearer of bad news to two of the U.S. attorneys supposedly fired for political reasons, he held two positions at the DOJ.

In May 2005 he came to Washington, D.C., as principal associate deputy attorney general but never surrendered his post as Montana’s U.S. attorney.

In September he was named acting associate attorney general.

Since withdrawing his nomination late last month to hold that position permanently, he has returned to Montana, where he continues to serve as U.S. attorney. His homecoming has fueled some speculation that he was eyeing a run for Senate or governor.