The Democratic Dilemma in the Senate Race: An Overview of the Field

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I’ve got some thoughts about who I’d be most inclined to support for the

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The logo for the US Senate is seen hanging on the wall inside the Senate Radio-TV gallery on December 27, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic Senate nomination—and I’d love to hear some comments here or privately suggesting who I should support—but I think the person the Democratic Party selects may end up being less important than the manner in which she is chosen and the response of those who support candidates for the job. That being said, here’s a little (sort of) review of the field.

The Uninterested

Love him or not, Schweitzer was the candidate who gave the Democrats the best chance to pull this race off. I would have loved to see Denise Juneau run, as long as she kept her position at OPI while she did it, but I understand the reasons for not running. I think you’ll see this list grow as the reality of the demands of this race become more clear.

The Pretender

There is no scenario under which the Democratic Party will select John Bohlinger, his late road to Missoula conversion notwithstanding. His incredibly negative campaign in the Senate primary and his demand for $10 million dollars and an army of volunteers are absurd on face, but especially for a candidate who was, four months ago, railing about the corrupting influence of money in politics to justify his inability to raise any money for his bid.

The Wonks

To me, the strangest group of candidates who have been floated or who have floated themselves are the policy wonks. A candidate with no name recognition outside of the halls of government or the Party has no chance to win this race, and this isn’t the spot to build a resume. John Lewis has spent over a year running for a House race; three months just won’t be enough for a Senate candidate coming out of policy staff.

The Launchpad Candidates

Running a seemingly hopeless race isn’t the worst way to get some statewide attention and set a candidate up for a later run. By hitching their stars to the failed gubernatorial campaigns of Roy Brown and Neil Livingstone, respectively, Steve Daines and Ryan Zinke set themselves up for later runs, although the latter was assisted by his unethical and probably illegal Super PAC. Running for this Senate seat will afford someone an excellent opportunity to become known by Montana voters, network with people in the Party, and lay the groundwork for a future statewide bid.

If the Party chooses one of these candidates, the most important criterion has to be selecting someone who actually has a chance of winning a subsequent statewide race. It might be easy to confuse someone who’s most interested in promoting himself or herself in the next two weeks for someone who could actually win, though, so I hope the Party, if it chooses this avenue, makes a careful choice not based on energy spent on self-promotion, but on future prospects.

The Idealists

There’s a lot to be said for the idea of the Democrats running someone who has championed the best and most liberal values of the Party, to inspire the Party to move closer to its progressive values. There’s no denying that the Party has largely relied on centrist candidates to win statewide races, a move that has infuriated those more interest in party purity than party victories. At the same time, it’s worth mentioning that centrist push has kept most of the statewide offices in the hands of Democrats while a very conservative Legislature has developed.

There’s a potentially huge drawback here, though, that those pushing for the idealist candidates ought to consider. The Don or Dona Quixote we send out to battle the very real giants of corporatism is probably going to lose badly, especially given the compressed timeframe she’ll have to do battle. Rather than inspiring the more liberal wing of the Party and encouraging the Party to move left, a really bad defeat will likely be (unfairly) used as a reason to move even more to the middle in the future. 

Tread carefully if you go this way, Democrats, even if it’s probably what I want you to do.

The Dude

I’d vote for Jeff Bridges. Given his politics, authenticity, and energy, I think the Party should keep him in mind for the future, but asking someone who is relatively unknown into the ring seems like a mistake the MDP might want to avoid, even were he interested. The Dude does indeed abide here, though, and will in 2016 and beyond, and I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. 1

And just like Steve Daines, he was born in California.

The Worst Case

Let’s be honest—unless there is a seismic shift in this race and the manner in which the Montana media covers elections, the Democrats face an-almost impossible task. As long as Steve Daines can control the media message to depict himself as “that nice fellow who holds (staged) town meetings (the public isn’t invited to), not the most conservative member of the Montana delegation in history, he’s going to have a huge, if not insurmountable advantage in this race.

The worst case is not just that the Democrats lose the Senate seat. The worst thing that could happen would be for the selection process to stoke resentments in the party between its various ideological wings, interest groups, and consultant group factions. We already saw some of that positioning in the first day after the Walsh announcement when some of the candidates were suggesting pretty unseemly projections of resentment weeks before anyone has considered any candidate.

I trust the committee who will make the ultimate decision won’t do this, but candidates (and those championing them) would do well to remember that, under these incredibly difficult circumstances, the Democratic Party can’t let this situation further divide them. I think we’re in a historic moment in Montana—where the scales could tip quite suddenly in favor of Republicans. Entrenching someone like Steve Daines, who has shown an uncanny ability to manage his reactionary politics and pretty strong political organization at the top of the Republican establishment at the same time Democrats start really tearing each other apart, would be an unmitigated disaster.

I trust the committee entrusted with making this difficult, swift decision. Other Democrats, especially those passionate about one replacement candidate or another, would be wise to give the committee their trust, too—and support the process going forward. In the end, the process—and the way candidates respond when they are not chosen—may have more important implications for the future of the Party than a single Senate race, as important as it is.

  1. Note to the New York Times: this is a deliberate allusion. Please don’t report me to my college for plagiarism.
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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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  • I have to admit, upon hearing that Jeff Bridges might be considered a candidate for the Senate race, I was ready to cast my vote that day. And I bet Steve Daines was doing his best to figure out how he could further perpetuate his poor congressional record into something sizable enough to beat Bridges. In other words, Daines was urinating down his leg at the thought of having to compete with Bridges and there was absolutely nothing Daines could’ve done in order to beat him.

    Sour grapes on my part, to be sure. But I’m sorry, Daines is not the definition of congressional leadership. In fact, he is a part of the problem rather than a solution. And each time he claims he’s a “5th Generation Montanan”, I want to walk up to him and smack him upside his head.

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