Big Dreamers Eye Seats in Big Sky Country

Posted June 11, 2008 at 5:54pm

Surprises were popping up everywhere in the June 3 Montana primary.

But perhaps no one was more surprised than the state parties, both of which now must decide how to handle the perennial candidates who Montana voters selected to challenge powerful Congressional incumbents.

Sen. Max Baucus (D) was set to coast to re-election this cycle, but then 85-year-old attorney Bob Kelleher (R), who has run for political office — including the presidency — more than 15 times, emerged as the GOP victor.

And after Democrats searched and thought they found a worthy contender to face Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) in November, their preferred candidate lost to former Public Service Commissioner and state Speaker John Driscoll (D), who has run for office regularly over the past 30 years.

In Kelleher’s case, state Republican Party Chairman Erik Iverson appears to be keeping an open mind. Iverson plans to give Kelleher a table at the GOP’s annual convention next weekend and will meet with him next week.

“Bob Kelleher does not define, nor will he define, the Montana Republican Party,” Iverson said. “We have a platform. … I have yet to hear Mr. Kelleher speak to our platform, and that’s part of the line of questioning that I’m going to have for him” at the meeting.

Republicans might be skeptical because Kelleher runs on a platform that would abolish the presidency and the Congress, and instead enact a parliamentary system.

Or as Kelleher puts it, he doesn’t run for office — he runs against it.

“People kid about all the time that I’m running for office, but it’s a legitimate means of educating the public,” Kelleher said. “And Montana voters are educated on the evils of separation of powers with a strong monarch for president, [more] than the voters in the other 49 states.”

Despite his many attempts at running for, or against, governor, House, Senate and the presidency, he has won a major party nomination only once before: He was the Democratic nominee for Montana’s then-2nd House district in 1968.

But there’s another reason Kelleher might be fighting a fruitless battle. Baucus has raised more than $10 million this cycle, has 50 campaign staffers so far on the ground and nine campaign offices up and running.

As a result, it’s not surprising that Iverson says his party won’t spend any resources on a low priority like the Senate contest.

“Any money that would have flowed into that Senate race, would have come from the NRSC anyway,” he said, referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “And the Senatorial committee wasn’t going to be targeting this race anyway.”

The NRSC did not publically recruit anyone to run against Baucus from the beginning of the cycle, and spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said the committee does not support Kelleher.

“We congratulate him on his win but do not plan to endorse him,” Fisher said.

She would not comment about why the committee made that decision.

In Baucus’ camp, senior aide Jim Messina noted that this isn’t the first time the Finance Committee chairman has faced Kelleher.

“This guy has run against Sen. Baucus before,” Messina said. “He was a candidate in at least 2002 and I think he’s been a candidate in other races. Bob Kelleher has run for basically every office, from president to governor, in 25 years.”

Messina notes that Baucus, running for his sixth term, takes every campaign seriously, which is why he said there are 50 staffers across the state knocking on doors every night from now until November.

“But I must say that we were very happy with the result of the primary,” he added.

Kelleher is not sure why or how he won the primary. When asked, he responded only with, “I don’t know.”

Republicans believe that the crowded six-way primary split the vote, especially because the only two candidates who were actually campaigning and raising money for the seat were from the relatively populous Yellowstone County.

Observers say that because Kelleher has run for statewide office so many times, he simply had higher name identification — surprising almost every political insider in the state with his win.

On the Democratic side, observers say that high interest in the White House primary brought many new voters to the polls. More than 181,000 Democrats voted for a presidential candidate in the state last week, which is 50,000 more than the previous primary record.

It’s likely that the new voters weren’t aware of who was on the ticket, so the state Democratic Party’s preferred candidate, attorney Jim Hunt, lost the primary.

Enter Driscoll, who had served in elected office before, but has had a penchant for running for office for the past 30 years, including challenging incumbent Democrats.

But unlike their Republican counterparts in the Senate race, state Democrats appear to be supporting their House nominee.

“We think that John Driscoll has a record and a résumé that is proven and we think that Congressman Rehberg is extremely vulnerable,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O’Brien. “Nothing has changed on that.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the race. Democrats say Rehberg’s seat is winnable with the right candidate, and they note that both Baucus and popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) are expected to run strong in their re-election bids this year.

However, Driscoll, who could not be reached for comment, does not appear to want to campaign. He recently told the Missoulian that he has no plans to raise money for his race or campaign unless it fits in with his family’s summer travel plans. He has no campaign Web site.

“If I wasn’t going to be there normally, I’m not going to go,” he told the paper. “We’ll take whatever political events there are and overlay them with our plans.”