Montana Politics

There’s a House Race in Montana?

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There’s no disputing that the race to determine who will be Montana’s next Representative is the most ignored race in Montana. But it shouldn’t be that way.

Sure, being Montana’s only Representative is a pretty lousy job. You represent the second largest district in America in terms land mass (Alaska coming in first, of course) and the largest district in terms of population. You have to run for re-election every two years. You get overshadowed by two Senators and a Governor. Not to mention the fact that you have very little power or influence once elected. The only reason Representative Rehberg has any power right now is not because he’s “served” Montana for ten years – it’s because the GOP’s leadership knew Rehberg needed at least some sway if he was going to make a serious run for Senate. But back to the point.

After Nancy Keenan’s heartbreaking lose to Dennis Rehberg in 2000, Democrats all but gave up the seat. We’ve had some great candidates, but even the best rarely got close to 40%.

But now Dennis is moving on and we have an opportunity. The land developer has decided to gamble away his cot in Washington to take on a dirt farmer from Big Sandy. If Dennis loses to Tester and Bullock beats Rick Hill for Governor, where does that leave the GOP? They could very well have no clear leader and they’ll definitely have an incredibly weak bench of prospective candidates.

However, if the left doesn’t get mobilized, there is the real possibility that they will have a leader in Steve Daines. I’m not suggesting that Daines would be an effective leader and I’m not suggesting he wouldn’t. I am suggesting that we have an opportunity this cycle to not only contain the GOP in Montana, but we have an opportunity to completely annihilate it. Just imagine: two Democrats in the Senate, a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion, and a Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Daines has plenty of baggage (see “shipping American jobs overseas”), he’s been in the race for almost a year (and has run for statewide office before) and still has little to no name recognition, and his fundraising has slowed. On the other hand, Democrat Kim Gillan’s fundraising numbers have picked up considerably and I have little doubt new-comer Diane Smith will post big numbers this quarter, as well.

We have a huge opportunity to make something big happen here in Montana this cycle, but we have to start paying attention. The biggest obstacle to beating Daines isn’t his money, it’s Democrats not engaging in the House race, forfeiting the seat to a right-wing conservative Republican like Steve Daines, and letting it stay in Republican hands for another decade.

There are lots of big races taking place in Montana and, yes, one of them is the House race.

So, let’s take a quick look at the Democratic primary.

At first glance it looks like a crowded field, but it’s really pretty narrow in scope. Rob Stutz is a very nice man, but I doubt he’ll crack 2%. Dave Strohmaier says all the right things, but he simply won’t be able to make it out of the primary. What he will be able to do, however, is siphon off enough votes from Franke Wilmer to make her a non-contender. Additionally, a look at Franke’s money numbers raise some serious concerns. Since announcing, she’s already burned up about 40% of the $105,000 she’s raised and gained little traction from it.

Kim Gillan is being smarter with her money: she’s holding onto it. A few weeks ago I would have said that Kim was a shoe-in to win the Democratic Primary, but Diane Smith has changed that and she’s changed it for one simple reason: she’s got money. If Smith is willing to dump her own cash – and lots of it – into this race she’ll become a real contender. That being said, Smith will also have to figure out how to spin the fact that she’s contributed to both Rehberg and Burns in addition to announcing her candidacy for the House with a press release calling for less financial regulations (not exactly the stance you want to take in a Democratic primary).

If Smith posts big numbers in January, I think this race boils down to “Gillan v. Smith.” If Smith doesn’t post big numbers and refuses to put her own money in the race, then I think Kim returns to being the favorite in this race. Disagree or agree with my analysis of the primary, but this is a winnable election. We just have to get involved.

About the author

M. Storin

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