Montana’s congressional race heats up

by Pete Talbot

(Before I get into the meat of this post, I must say this to all Democratic congressional candidates: Spend your campaign dollars in Montana. A quick look at Denny Rehberg’s campaign expenditures shows the majority of his money going to consultants in Virginia and Tennessee, a researcher in Philadelphia, a phone bank in Arizona, direct mail in Utah, etc. Granted, a chunk of Denny’s change goes to Missoula’s own Erik Iverson for political consulting and to Huntley, Montana’s Tyler Matthews, Rehberg’s campaign manager, but the bulk of his money is being spent out-of-state. And I don’t care what party you’re in, few things disappoint me more than Montana campaigns spending their dollars out-of-state when there are businesses right here that can do the same job.)

OK. One would hope that the 2010 race for Montana’s lone congressional seat would remain civil. Fat chance; this is, after all, politics.

I remember a political operative telling me, years ago: “if you’re trailing in the polls, go negative.” It left a bad taste in my mouth.

Now, Denny Rehberg is hardly trailing in the polls but he’s already gone negative. His “mafia ties” campaign against Democratic candidate Dennis McDonald is in high gear. That’s unfortunate, but I suppose it’s easier than mounting a campaign based on substance. Seriously, Denny, how about a discussion on how Wall Street should be regulated, or how to fix the health care crisis, or how climate change should be mitigated, or how to grow sustainable jobs and the Montana economy? Although, again, it’s easier to just follow the party line and vote “no” on any legislation offered up by Democrats than to work toward solutions.

There’s also A.J. Otjen, a moderate, and Mark French (who should have filed as a Constitutionalist), running in the Republican primary.

On the Democratic side, well, this is a tough one for me. I want the candidate who has the best chances of unseating Rehberg. Period. I’m not sure who that is yet.

Jhwygirl has a post up on Melinda Gopher that has generated a plethora of comments — a couple from one of Rehberg’s primary challengers, A.J. Otjen. I really like Ms. Gopher. Her straightforward campaign is quite refreshing and her enthusiasm for progressive issues is contagious. A few things bother me, though: her late entry into the campaign leaves her way behind in fundraising and organizational staff, her ability to do outreach to constituencies outside of the human rights’ sphere is questionable, and the fact that she’s using Republican talking points against primary opponent Dennis McDonald. Please, Melinda, stick with the issues and leave the negative, policy-avoiding rhetoric to Rep. Rehberg.

Then there’s Tyler Gernant. This sharp, young fellow has mounted a quality campaign and is only slightly behind McDonald in the fundraising category. As opposed to Gopher, though, and even McDonald, his campaign lacks the inspiration that would fire up an activist like me. He’s being tentative and I don’t think that serves a candidate well in the primary. Here’s a quote from Helena progressive Frank Kromkowski to Mr. Gernant in a recent email blast:

From what I can tell, your campaign platform has very little substance and nothing bold and progressive that will help Montana get beyond the superficial conservative Rehberg line … Say something significant, for example, about the illegal and disastrous US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan — such as “Bring the troops home” and “no more money for war” — and use the dollars wasted on military adventures that have no real value to US security for jobs, housing, health care, protection and improvement of the aging water and wastewater systems in Montana’s cities and town. We need a progressive Democrat to replace Rehberg (not just another Baucus).
On the other hand, Tyler has been hitting the road and working the counties and the media. And underneath his rather soft message, I believe beats the heart of a progressive.
The third Democratic candidate, Melville rancher Dennis McDonald, is the one the party has been grooming for this race. That’s both good and bad. Having support of party leadership gets one lists and funding and organization. But it also proffers the title of “insider” or part of “the machine.” I’m not so sure that’s a good title to have these days. I’ll give McDonald credit, though, for bucking our Montana Senators and coming out early for single-payer, universal health care. It should also be noted that a frequent Republican commenter at 4&20, Pogo Possum, and other conservatives I’ve talked to believe that McDonald is the strongest Democratic candidate in the field. McDonald also has the Montana AFL-CIO endorsement.
There’s a fourth candidate, Sam Rankin, out of Billings. I like what I saw on his website but otherwise know nothing about this fellow. Better get your butt up to Missoula, the county with the most Democratic voters in the state, and get your message out if you expect to be a player at all. And feel free to get a hold of us at 4&20, we’d be glad to post your talking points.
So who gets the nod? The inspirational, refreshing and candid Ojibwe woman — who’s underfunded and not well-connected (outside of tribal politics) and is a party outsider? The other new face — the policy-smart, well-organized and politically savvy candidate with a potentially great future in Montana Democratic politics (but has a less than passionate campaign thus far)? Or the established, out front, Montana rancher who is the best known and may have the best demographic appeal but, is also considered a party insider (and has received the most press, both positive and negative)?
Consider this an open thread. What are your insights into this race, gentle reader? I haven’t made up my mind, yet, and there are only seven weeks left until the June 8 primary election.


  1. HamFisted

    The one thing I hear/read about Gernant when asked about his age and inexperience is that he is “fresh” or has a “fresh perspective.”

    Listen folks, I like my fruit fresh, but my politicians battle-hardened. Gopher has fought for native rights, McDonald took on the Mob for cristsakes, and well Gernant…there’s the Missoula Greenhorns.

    Fact is, if Gernant is going to be a viable candidate, Kromkowski has got it right, he needs a strong vision, substance and something more than flowery rhetoric for those who question his experience. That and getting rid of the Montana native/Georgetown grad entitlement vibe would really help.

  2. problembear

    if the failure of the health care reform bill tells us anything it tells us that faint hearts win nothing- even when they win.

    sick and tired of people gauging for me who is winnable and who isn’t. i say if mcdonald and gernant inspire you then by all means fight for their candidacy.

    so far, as far as i can see, there is only one person in this campaign brave enough to stand up against the incumbent and defeat him. and she is going it virtually alone, because faint hearts in the democratic party turn their backs on her.

    when brave people stand up to entrenched power it inspires real change.

  3. Duncan Idaho

    I wish that “taking on the mob” would be seen as a positive attribute–our world needs good trial lawyers and McDonald seems like a good one. But realistically, we know that background will be successfully portrayed by Rehberg and the complicit media as a negative. That’s one strike against him, but for reasons such as Pete points out he might still be the strongest candidate.

    For me personally, the 2nd strike against McDonald was when he quickly penned an opportunistic anti-Rehberg editorial that ran in the Missoulian shortly after the Flathead Lake boat crash. Regardless of my agreement that Rehberg’s presence showed poor judgment to put it mildly, it was slimy for McDonald the candidate to jump so quickly onto that bandwagon. There are plenty of substantive reasons why Rehberg is a bad representative of Montanans. I want our candidate to hold to a higher standard, even though I know his campaigners will have to find every possible way to go negative too. Call me an idealist.

    That’s only two strikes. I expect to hold my nose and vote for McDonald in November, with no optimism whatsoever because I expect Rehberg to win in a landslide. Between now and the primary, the candidate about whom I’m most enthusiastic is Otjen, by a landslide.

  4. James Conner

    Gernant is running a tactically clever campaign, but he’s clearly averse to taking strong positions on the issues. The result? A candidate without a strong philosophical identity. His “why vote for me” case boils down to “I’m young, I’m new, and it’s time for a change.” What kind of change? The details are lacking.

    I strongly suspect that Gernant is actually campaigning for 2012, when it is widely expected that Rehberg will challenge Tester and the Congressional seat will be open. If Gernant gets the nomination this spring, and if he conducts a credible campaign, he’ll be well positioned for a good chance of winning in 2012.

    But I wish he were 37, not 27. He’s long on ambition, but short on experience. He would profit from more seasoning, both as a candidate and as a legislator.

    • JC

      Yeah, I agree that Gernant seems to be in the name recognition business right now in this cycle.

      There are others who think Rehberg is going to run for governor in 2012, though. Makes sense as a likely scenario. After all, he was lieutenant governor from 91-96, until he lost his bid for the senate against Max.

      Methinks that Denny is tiring of the couch he sleeps on passes out on in D.C. and would rather spend his twilight days roaming the guv’s mansion when not out mingling with his goats, living the good life.

      • Kevin

        You are right. He should have ran for the legislature, built up a base over time and won some credibility, name recognition, and experience.

        Oh well.

        • petetalbot

          This is not an endorsement of any particular candidate but folks have been saying that Gopher and Gernant should spend some time in the Montana Legislature before going after a congressional seat.

          I should mention that McDonald, although paying political dues, hasn’t served in any legislative capacity, either.

          • Derrick

            McDonald served as party chair for years, and has a lot more life experience. He’s been working in politics, Cattlemen’s Association policy organizing, union work, etc for many, many years.

            What’s wrong with running for state legislature. We need good people there more than we need them in Congress. State legislators have more power over our lives than Rehberg ever will.

            • JC

              We don’t get to make the choices for which offices people run.

              There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have good people run for the leg. If you know some, get out and recruit them. That’s how a lot of leg candidates get going–their friends and supporters draft them and push them along.

        • JC

          I wasn’t saying what he should have done. I was commented on what it appears he is doing.

          Running for an office out of your current league is one way people build name recognition–albeit it as a loser. Others work their way up. Some work from the inside out. Some run as dark horses.

          Makes it interesting.

          What seems to be obvious is that McDonald is the dem establishment candidate, having worked inside the party. It brings with it a certain sense of entitlement from the candidate’s supporters. And of course it brings a certain amount of skepticism from those outside the party core, and indies.

          It wouldn’t be the first time the dems put up a sacrificial lamb, so that newer, younger candidates get some experience in his shadow. Sometimes the ruse becomes obvious, though, and a dark horse takes the reigns.

          Yeah, I don’t think McDonald is a serious candidate. Unelectable may be the wrong term. But a candidate who is sure to garner more than his share of negative campaigning will make for a fall campaign tv commercial season that I’ll want to miss.

          • Derrick

            Huh? When did the dems put up a “sacrificial lamb” so that newer, younger candidates could get some experience, as you say.

            Who are you talking about?

            Not Lindeen I hope. Her loss was all the fault of her lazy, lackluster campaign.

            • Montana Cowgirl

              Who knows.

            • JC

              Um, how about John Driscoll vs. Brian Schweitzer in the 2000 democratic Senate primary? Schweitzer won handily against the well entrenched, and well known politician. Yet he lost against Burns by a good margin.

              Dems were willing to sacrifice Driscoll because they saw the potential in Schweitzer. And of course that strategy backfired as Driscoll was a no-show candidate in 2008 against Rehberg (because it was his turn to be the sacrifice to Hunt) as his primary win was an accident.

  5. klemz

    This is how you do it in Montana, make your opponent look gay:

    • Funny that. Maybe it’s because I don’t find anything wrong with being gay, but I never got that from the video, at all. To me, it made him look like a crook. Oh yeah, that’s because he was a crook. And I’m very tired of the “made him look gay” canard. Taylor made the goddamned video. If any one made Taylor “look” gay, it was Taylor.

      Why not say what’s really up with that? It isn’t that Taylor looks “gay” in the video. All that is a cheap play to demonize homosexuals. “Taylor certainly couldn’t be one of those awful creatures, and Baucus was wrong to call him one.” Notice, the fact that he’s a crook gets a complete pass, because he could be worse … he could be a swish! Face it. He just didn’t look like a manly Republicant man should man up and look, in a video he made himself while running a scam to steal your money. Now why don’t all you whiners tell us good folk how quitting his campaign in a tantrum made him look any more manly?

      Oh, and for the record, every time I see a picture of Rehberg, all I can think of is that he has a low rent porn star mustache. Now if one of his opponents was to run an attack ad interspersing pics of Rehberg with Harry Reams … Well then you might have a complaint, Klemz.

      • klemz

        You know, sometimes things can just be funny. There’s no need to attach an editorial footnote to every whimsical historical oddity.

      • klemz

        I would also like to note that the line “not the way we do business here in Montana” comes at a point where Taylor is reaching to put down a foundation pad, but he appears, due to unfortunate frame placement, to be reaching for something else (while smiling at the camera).

        • So, in other words, you’re joking but not really.

          Exactly as I thought. Just another Republidink trying to tell others what they can and cannot think.

          • klemz

            Wulfgar, if someone has to sit down and explain to you why this video is hysterical on four or five different levels – not the least of which that it made Taylor actually drop out of the race – then God help you. Maybe you just had to be where I was at the time: 21 years old in South Chicago, not caring at all about Congressional races in a state I had not yet been to.

  6. problembear

    pretty sure klemz is a dyed in the wool independent like me wulfgar, but sharpening ones fangs for the upcoming election season requires practice. since it is only an off year election i probably will retract the claws just a tad myself. seems like i have been considerable on the fight lately. don’t want to peak early.

    • klemz

      I think our legitimate gripes with Baucus are on fairly similar grounds as well. Cronyism is not a laughing matter; this video is.

      • problembear

        i don’t care who baucus runs against in 2014. he’s going down. the footage of him gavelling the doctors down and asking if we need more police should make a nice 15 second impression.

  1. 1 Gopher Comes Out Swinging « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] that didn’t take long! Two days ago 4&20′s own Pete Talbot wrote up a quick profile of Montana’s Congressional race. And of course, by doing so, he had a few things to say about […]

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