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Montana Politics

Breaking Down the Republican Field of Candidates for Governor

Candidates Living on a Prayer (or in Pray)

Bob Fanning is the least conventional (and logical) candidate in this race, which is something, considering that Neil Livingstone is on the ballot. Fanning’s candidacy has been such a disaster that not even Chuck Baldwin was willing to remain a part of the team. A veritable gaggle of illogical (and unconstitutional) positions, three running mates, and one dead campaign.

Jim Lynch probably isn’t a Republican, probably isn’t running for any other reason than spite, and definitely won’t be the Republican nominee for governor. While he certainly did enough commercials while he was the head of DOT to get his name recognition up, his ugly departure from state work and subsequent partisan transformation make him unlikely to get more than a per cent or two in the primary–brazen, inflammatory TEA Party rhetoric notwithstanding.

Jim O’Hara seems like a nice enough guy who thought it would be interesting to run for governor and in a different year, he might have been a moderate choice for the GOP. No moderate is going to win this field, and O’Hara, other than a brief appearance on the CBS news for his entirely cool highway signs, hasn’t been able to distinguish himself from the field.

Neil Livingstone would be a viable candidate, if this were an election to determine the best candidate to provide travel advice to brothels, illegally lobby for terrorists, coddle dictators, or teach a workshop about writing an entirely fantastic autobiography.

The campaign can’t raise any money and has been plagued by one embarrassment after another. The only real mystery is why Ryan Zinke hitched his wagon to this rickety RV. Given that many saw him as a potential gubernatorial candidate as little as six months ago, it’s a mystery why he’s chosen to end his political career in this farce of a campaign.

Small Fish

Corey Stapleton probably made a good choice to choose Bob Keenan as his running mate(though he would be a tremendous liability in the general) but the candidate has certainly struggled to stand up in this field. He’s not as experienced as Hill, not as conservative as Miller, and not as disconnected from reality as Livingstone. There’s nothing that sets Stapleton apart from the other candidates, despite his somewhat inflated memory of his time in the Montana Legislature.

And Stapleton has made some odd choices: he spent a great deal of money on print media well before the primary season, had some real challenges with his online presence, and some real struggles with understanding campaign finance.

The only way I see Stapleton having an impact on this race would be if Rick Hill gets pulled down deep in the mud and Stapleton emerges as the moderate candidate against Miller.

Ken Miller has only one hope in this race: to convince conservative, especially religious and conservative, Montana Republicans, that he is the candidate who can defeat Rick Hill. In fact, as I see it, he’s the only candidate with a chance of defeating Hill—and that chance is awfully small.

Miller would be a disaster as governor. His positions are radical even for Montana’s Republican Party. His views are the most extreme of any legitimate candidate on issues ranging from welfare to wolves and on education to abortion.

Miller is likely to take second in this race, but unlikely to get any more than 20% of the vote.

The Big Fish

The truth is that this is Rick Hill’s race to lose, for a couple of real reasons. He’s the candidate of the Republican establishment—as evidenced by their endorsements and contributions—and in a field desperate to establish its conservative bona fides, he comes across as the most sensible choice.

But Hill’s frontrunner status comes with some real challenges. He’s not trusted by the growing conservative wing of the party, despite his claim that he was “Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool.” His Congressional record, while conservative by any fair assessment, contains a few votes that put him to the right of Barry Goldwater, a position that is simply unacceptable to many in the base. His votes in favor of Most Favored Nation Status for China, in support of the United Nations, and against some tax cuts are particularly problematic for the right wing of the Republican Party in Montana.

And Hill does come with some baggage, baggage that his conservative opponents, especially the more desperate ones, seem quite willing to exploit. We’ve already seen a dump of old news clippings about Hill’s marital difficulties, infidelity, and subsequent divorce. Bob Keenan even mentioned it at his Lt. Governor announcement. While it’s always important to establish whether or not we can trust candidates for public office, it will be interesting to see how a party that loudly aligns its morals with so-called family values will respond to this old, but undeniably true news.

He’s also got some policy baggage when it comes to one of his “achievements” before taking office. He claimed credit for fixing Montana’s Workers’ Compensation system, a system that was so badly in need of repair during the last Legislative session that Republicans and Democrats actually worked together to fix the problems Hill created.

Hill knows his past is a problem. That’s why his campaign manager kept editing his Wikipedia page to hide the embarrassing details.

All this has made Hill the strangest kind of frontrunner—an almost invisible one. He’s made carefully selected campaign appearances and has offered vague rhetoric that makes Mitt Romney seem bold by comparison. I’d donate a real American dollar to the Hill campaign if he’d ever actually identify some “burdensome regulations” he’d like to eliminate.

It’s hard to imagine Hill losing this race, but it’s also quite likely that he will be bloodied by the pack of Republicans desperate to establish themselves as the second choice.

As entertaining the as Republican gubernatorial candidates have been to write about—and I no doubt will continue to do so—it’s time to focus our energy on Rick Hill, who will almost certainly emerge from this field as the Republican candidate.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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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