Handicapping Montana’s congressional race

by Pete Talbot

Consider this an open thread because I’d like others’ insights into this race.

Here’s my rather rambling take on Montana’s U.S. House race.  The candidates are Kim Gillan, a state senator out of Billings; Diane Smith, a newcomer from Whitefish; Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula City Councilor; Helena lawyer Rob Stutz; and Franke Wilmer, a state representative from Bozeman. Jason Ward of Hardin has also filed but doesn’t seem to be actively campaigning.  Melinda Gopher is also rumored to be a candidate but she hasn’t filed yet. The FEC has John Abarr filed as a Democrat but since the former Ku Klux Klan organizer has dropped out, I won’t go there.

First, the money side of the equation as of Dec. 31, date of the last filing report:

Name Total Contributions (from time announced running until Dec. 31, 2011) Fourth Quarter contributions (October – Dec. 31, 2011)
Steve Daines, R $953,505 $173,315.68
Kim Gillan, D $175,159 $52,014.76
Franke Wilmer, D $154,877 $55,260.93
Diane Smith, D $100,033 $100,033
Dave Strohmaier, D 72,151 $23,080.24
Robert Stutz, D $13,315 $3,265

Republican Steve Daines, the basically unopposed millionaire, has more campaign money than all the Democrats put together but that’s not the focus of this piece.

Democrat Diane Smith wasn’t at the ‘Pasty Party’ held in Missoula Sunday night and sponsored by the Missoula County Democrats. Gillan, Strohmaier, Stutz and Wilmer were, and they all spoke.

So I don’t have any personal experience with Smith but there’s this: she has about $75 grand in the bank (I like round numbers, so let’s say $100K raised and $25K spent).  She’s only been in the race since November so that’s a pretty good chunk of change she’s raised.  Smith touts her support of gay and choice issues but stresses her fiscally conservative business roots.  She received a few contributions from Whitefish and Bigfork but the majority of her money comes from the D.C. area, where she was in the telecommunications business.  The Flathead Memo has an interesting piece on the lack of transparency from Smith’s contributors.

The Memo also has stories on Smith’s past contributions to Republican candidates here and here.  It may not be a big problem in the general election but she has to get through the primary where the committed Democratic voters take a dimmer view of this.

Next up in the fundraising department is Kim Gillan with about $100 grand left in the bank.  She’s on top of the Democratic contribution heap with $176K raised.  She spoke at the ‘Pasty Party’ about her experience in the Montana Legislature and struck a moderate tone.  Lots of current and former legislators greeted her warmly.

Will Gillan split the moderate vote with Smith?  Maybe, somewhat. There are a lot more Democrats in Billings than there are in the Flathead, though, and name recognition will play a role.

The other aspect is that progressives tend to turn out for the primaries so maybe a moderate doesn’t have the leg up that they’d have in the general.

And there’s the Missoula factor: more registered Democratic voters in this county than any other Montana County.  Will Missoula Democrats turn out?  Will they vote for the hometown boy?

Which brings me to Dave Strohmaier, who has $15 grand in the bank.  He’s raised $72K.  The most passionate speaker at the ‘Pasty Party,’ he trotted out his local government credentials, his advocacy for a southern-tier passenger rail line and his strong support of GLBT issues.  Strohmeier was well received by the audience, the enthusiasm palpable, but it was his hometown crowd.

Rob Stutz spoke next.  His campaign isn’t taking any PAC money, which is admirable, and he advanced that.  Tough call, though, not taking the PAC money one might need to tell supporters he’s not taking PAC money.

Stutz has raised $13 grand and has about $6K left in the bank.

He also says his unique campaign has the best chance of beating Daines in November, although I’m sure the other candidates feel the same way.

Franke Wilmer spoke last, about international policy — which is refreshing because most congressional candidates gloss over this — but I’m not sure how this plays to the masses.  She also offered her blue-collar roots and experience in the Montana Legislature as references.  She’s the only candidate to come out publicly against the Keystone XL Pipeline (as opposed to our governor and congressional delegation) and that shows some chutzpah.  Wilmer received the second-most enthusiastic response from the crowd.

She’s raised a good amount of cash, $155 grand, and has $55K in the bank.

So it’s in play: a Missoula progressive, with less money but in a heavy Democratic county against a Bozeman progressive with more money but in a county with fewer Democratic voters.  The conventional wisdom is that being tagged ‘Missoula’ is harder to overcome in the rest of the state than being tagged ‘Bozeman.’

Then there are the moderates, Gillan and Smith, although Gillan has paid her dues in the legislature and with the party.  Both say that a moderate — someone who can work across the aisle — has the best chance of beating Daines in the general.

And then there’s Rob Stutz, who could peel away enough votes to be a spoiler in all four of the above-mentioned races.

In a primary like this, the most organized campaign with the best media and strongest ground game should come out on top. Moderation, money, passion and principles — and the candidates’ message — are important, too, but with this many in the field, it will be hard to get a message to resonate with anyone other than those who follow politics closely.

Any one of these candidates would be a vast improvement over either Rehberg or Daines, but you know that.

No primary endorsements from me here, just some info.  I await your comments with bated breath.  With your help, I’ll do more and better handicapping soon.

  1. Being an open thread, folks can read my remarks at http://www.robstutz.com/index.php?page=blog&full=24. The main point: “If we do not focus on the goal – winning the general election – before the primary, the results of this race might be predictable.”

  2. Gopher continues to blog like a candidate, and if memory serves me correctly filed in March in 2010, so I think she will file. Jason Ward has a Facebook page, and his campaign website, http://www.jasonward2012.com, is operational but sparsely populated.

    I regard Gopher and Ward as soapbox candidates. They’re using the campaign and the credibility it confers to raise issues. It’s a long and honorable tradition.

    The other five are seriously seeking the nomination. At Flathead Memo I’ve been pretty hard on Diane Smith. We know more about her now, so some of the questions I raised have been answered. I’d classify her as an economic Blue Dog and a social progressive. She’s raising a lot of money from the telecom industry. I expect her next campaign finance report will provide some of the information missing in her year end report for 2011. And I think she’ll have far more cash in the bank at the end of March than any of the other candidates.

    She hired a young man with experience in Obama’s grassroots operations as her campaign manager. That’s a smart move. Her statements on issues are carefully crafted to let voters believe they agree with her (Obama and Bullock do the same thing).

    She’s displaying considerable political savvy.

    My personal opinion is that Rob Stutz is best equipped to beat Steve Daines in the general election. He’s a very bright and well educated guy; he’s not freighted with the legislative baggage that encumbers Strohmaier, Gillan, and Wilmer. He has the best website of the candidates. And as a long time Democratic activist, the party’s base will not scorn and shun him as a newcomer who hasn’t earned the moral right to seek the nomination. If he wins the nomination, the money he’ll need will be there. He’d make a damn fine Congressman.

  3. Gillan is the ‘establishment’ candidate, and I believe she will be the Dem nominee.

    But she won’t be able to overcome the biggest handicap, which will be the name Barack Hussein Obama on the top of the ballot.

    • petetalbot

      The ballot line for Obama won’t have “Hussein” in it, Eric, but thanks for pointing out his middle name, over-and-over-and-over: something that he had absolutely no control over. He got the name the day he was born; oh wait, that’s not his real birth certificate, is it?

  4. Carol

    From what I’ve read, Ms. Wilmer is only against the Keystone Pipeline as currently proposed- which is similar to the position Governor Schweitzer has taken.


    • petetalbot

      You’re right Carol, I should have included “currently proposed” in my post. Would love to have state Rep. Wilmer, or someone from her campaign, present more details on Keystone XL stand.

  5. Dave Strohmaier

    For what it’s worth, in all of our candidate forums I have consistently supported the president’s denial of the Keystone XL permit. It was inappropriate for Congress to force the president’s hand on this with an arbitrary deadline. Also, and contrary to some of my competitors’ comments, I, too, have a 100% MCV voting record.

    • petetalbot

      This is what I’m looking for, clarification and comments from candidates and others in the know. Thanks Dave.

      • On record at http://www.explorebigsky.com/newspost/candidate-interview-rob-stutz:

        “My view on Keystone is that we should build the pipeline from the Bakken oil fields south, because that would decouple the economic benefit and the jobs that we’ll have here in Montana from the environmental problems with the Alberta Tar Sands.

        The fracking that’s being done in the Bakken oil field should be done in an environmentally safe way that doesn’t pollute our groundwater. Whatever is built should reach the highest levels of environmental security with automatic shutoffs, high quality pipeline and not routing it through sensitive areas.”

        I am more concerned about having a sound environmental/energy policy than about whether the deadline for determining that policy is too short.

        This is a great example of why we need more public forums around Montana – there are very few scheduled, apart from Democratic Party dinners – where people can ask the candidates important questions.

  6. G6

    Daines will win this race decisively. Not only does the establishment support him, but he is adored by the Tea Party.

  7. ladybug

    Fracking is also threatening to pollute the groundwater in the Upper Yellowstone River basin near Livingston. Very little baseline groundwater data has been collected, mainly because the local crazies have vehemently rebuffed”government agents'” requests to access private wells to gather data. Now, as the reality of possible permanent groundwater contamination begins to permeate the skull bones, these same hard-heads are begging the state to hurry up with well testing. Without baseline date, fracking contamination is unprovable.

    • Ingemar Johansson

      If we went by governmental standards the upper Jellystone (including the park) would be the world’s largest superfund site.

  8. Chuck

    Ladybug…You want the state to check clean wells when apparently there isn’t enough money in the Guv’s budget to clean up land and groundwater they KNOW is contaminated?

    If you live in an urban area you are almost certain to be living within a 100 yards of a former dirty site or a site that is still dirty but not a high priority of Gov Schweitzer’s DEQ. These sites can be on property adjacent to both municipal and private water wells.
    Call Opper…ask him if he knows of “any sites where contamination may pose a threat , now or in the future ,to the health and safety of his citizens and if he had enough money would he clean them up?
    Or …go test clean wells in The Shields Valley…

    • don’t blame it on “Schweitzer’s” DEQ = the backlog there goes well beyond his first election.

      It’s never been a priority for anyone.

      Montana prides itself on its EPA/DEQ economy. Ask Denny Washington, Ask Kim Gillan.

  9. Chuck

    Your worried about potentially pollution from future fracking?

  10. Pogo Possum

    Pete, my compliments for an excellent review of the current batch of Democratic candidates for the US House.

    Looks like there is one more to add to the scrum:

    Democrat Rankin announces bid for U.S. House nomination

    Read more: http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/democrat-rankin-announces-bid-for-u-s-house-nomination/article_147bb458-6980-11e1-84f0-001871e3ce6c.html#ixzz1oZykUOSR

    • Pete Talbot

      Thanks for the update, Pogo. More-and-more people filing for office, from all sides of the aisle and for many different seats. This is going to be a raucous election.

  11. Pogo Possum

    Here are a few comments to add to the mix.

    Let’s start with candidate finances. If a candidate isn’t organized or disciplined enough to raise money then it is going to be an uphill battle in a statewide race.

    Daines has set the bar high and no Democrat is really competing with him so far in fundraising. But let’s be generous and assume some financial aid will fall to the winner of the Democratic Primary. A look at Pete’s numbers make it clear that Stutz knows he can’t raise money (thus saying he doesn’t need to). The late filer Sam Rankin, if I remember correctly, raised little or no money when he ran in 2010 and came in 4th in the Primary. Stutz and Rankin are looking for soapboxes not serious campaigns. That leaves Gillan, Wilmer, Strohmaier and Smith who have displayed at least a minimal ability to raise funds.

    I met Frankie Wilmer at a dinner in Helena several years ago. She came across as very bright, passionate, gregarious, skilled in communication, knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, academic in nature, and very, very, very liberal. If I was going to pick anyone from your list to talk to over dinner, she would be at the top of the list. My guess is that while she might get through a Democratic Primary, especially in Missoula, she is going to have a difficult time selling her brand of liberal politics to more moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents in the General Election to make any kind of a dent in the votes to knockoff Steve Daines.

    I have also met Dave Strohmaier who has similar qualities as Frankie Wilmer: intelligent, passionate, well informed, not quite as academic sounding as Fankie, and equally very liberal. Next to the very large liberal target he proudly displays on his back, his second greatest challenge in a statewide General election is spelled: M I S S O U L A. Eastern Montana voters will not be kind to him for a whole host of reasons.

    You are down to Gillan and Smith for your two best bets in the General. Neither will beat Daines, but at least they are the only ones with any positioning and demonstrated ability to make a serious attempt.

    As an extra note, if you are going to refer to Steve Daines as a “millionaire” then in fairness you should also refer in similar fashion to some of your Democratic friends: “Diane Smith, a millionaire”, “Jon Tester, a millionaire” and “Brian Schweitzer, a millionaire” to name a few.

    Other than that, you did a great job.

    • Money doesn’t win elections. Votes do. Ask Conrad Burns.

      Since the outset I’ve said that it doesn’t take much money to explain in the primary who I am, what my views are, and what my strengths are for the general election. Part of my message is that I watch the bottom line and run a tight ship.

      Some Republicans don’t like the idea of Democrats being more effective with fewer resources because it means Daines’ money advantage is … ahem … nullified. He’s trying to buy the race, but regular people are tired of money politics. I talk about substance in my campaign, and the money-in-politics issue is a part of the message that regular people find compelling. Just read my endorsements. A lot of political insiders don’t understand the approach, but, let’s face it, taking a predictable approach hasn’t worked for the Democrats in 18 years.

      That is why in the first comment to this post I linked to my remarks at the Pasty Party, including:

      “I will beat Steve Daines because I don’t have rich friends trying to buy me into office. The goal of my campaign is not to raise and squander a bunch of money in a divisive primary. We need to save our fight for the general election. I will win the general election because I have the most efficient campaign structure, the most effective message for the general election, and the background that Montanans want in a Representative. Jon Tester wasn’t the favorite to win in 2006, but he did because he ran an efficient, effective campaign with a compelling message.”

    • Pete Talbot

      You’re right about the millionaire tag, Pogo, and should also include Rehberg in that list.

      • Pogo Possum

        Fair enough.

        • Ingemar Johansson

          You guys are right. We don’t need millionaires running things.

          Millionaires have to stick to budgets. Millionaires have to spend only what they earn. Millionaires increase their wealth and the wealth of others.

          Can’t have any of that.

    • bendarrow

      Why should we support a candidate that is going to lose the general? Yet, neither Gillan nor Smith “will beat Daines in November.” Nor Frankie, nor Dave, for reasons similar to each other.

      I cannot believe you think the race is a waste of time, but given your analysis, the only possible candidate to support is one who can win, Stutz.

      The argument that money matters is true, but money doesn’t decide. Think O’Keefe and Martz’s “Make him spend it all” message. The best story is what wins elections.

      This time Daines is going to run alongside a Tea Party banner — who better to be the Democrat’s standard-bearer than a constitutional scholar with direct experience dealing with these crazies. Stutz is on exactly the right soapbox for this election.

  12. joe bob

    Hey Peter, how much do you have in the “bank” er, I mean trust fund?

    • Pete Talbot

      Joe bob, can you give me some details on this trust fund? Things have been a little tight around the household lately (as in the last four years). I’d sure like access to the fund. The bankers who are all over my ass right now would appreciate it, too.

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