Montana Democrats’ strategy, 2018 and beyond

2018 should be a cakewalk for Montana Democrats: an incompetent Republican president, a Republican congressman who beats up reporters and a legislature whose Republican majority left the state budget in a shambles.

On the Democratic side, there’s a brush-cut, finger-missing farmer (and incumbent senator) who should be easily re-elected.

So why the worry lines on the faces of those in the state’s Democratic Party hierarchy? For one thing, in 2016 Trump won Montana by 20 points. Republicans also won every statewide race except the governor’s office. They picked up three seats in the Montana Senate (32Rs-18Ds) and there was no change in the Montana House (59Rs-41Ds).

Unless the political landscape has changed dramatically since 2016, Democrats have their work cut out for them.

So, what’s their strategy? Funny you should ask.

A lengthy New York Times Magazine article asked the same question of the national party. The piece didn’t offer many answers but there was food for thought.

A long-range game plan with a consistent, cohesive economic message would be nice:

Priorities USA, the extravagantly funded super PAC that was started to support Obama’s 2012 campaign, never built the kind of entrenched ground-level presence maintained by its analogues on the right. In contrast, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative network financed by David and Charles Koch, spent the Obama years establishing a network of more than three million activists in 36 states and mobilizing them to protest against Obamacare, environmental regulations and tax increases — becoming what the group’s president, Tim Phillips, described to me as “a state-based long-game organization that would always be there.” The current chairman of Priorities USA, Guy Cecil, acknowledges the disparity: “Most of our activities, most of our structures, are built around individual fights, or individual candidates, or individual organizations, and I think that’s put us at a disadvantage.”

Most Montana campaigns are candidate driven, and the message is crafted by polling and the mood of the electorate at the time. The process starts all over again for the next electoral cycle.

It’s often a defensive message, too, since the opposition is throwing mud from day one. Playing defense is a mistake. Get out early, Democrats, with a positive, aggressive campaign aimed at helping people. It looks better to the voters than the negative tit for tat that plays out during the campaign season.

The Montana Post asked the Montana Democratic Party about “a state-based long game” that goes beyond 2018, even 2020, and about the Democratic National Committee’s role in Montana. From Nancy Keenan, state party executive director:

The Montana Democratic party is a separate entity from the DNC. We have always had a longterm strategy to fight for Democrats from the top of the ballot to the bottom, and we always run a coordinated ground game, hiring more than 100 organizers across our state. We think our ground game will be even stronger this year because of the grassroots energy we have seen across Montana. Of course we are focused on 2018, but we know that by continuing to improve our existing party infrastructure, we will support Democrats through 2020 and beyond. It’s not lost on any of us that our Senior United States Senator Jon Tester was once a state legislator from Big Sandy.

What else can the party do to rebuild its base? One idea in the NYT article offered by Sen. Harry Reid’s former chief of staff on candidate recruitment:

“There are killers, and there are whiners. Unfortunately, we have too many of the latter and not enough of the former.”

I liked that. “Killer” doesn’t have to be defined as a nasty, divisive candidate, like a certain current White House occupant (whose approval ratings are hovering in the mid-30s) but Montanans aren’t big on whiners. Perhaps a better description than “killer” would be a take-no-prisoners style a la Sen. Elizabeth Warren (although in our misogynist-leaning society that style seems better suited to men).

Another question is whether the party should take a more progressive approach to platform and policy. Of course, most Democrats think of themselves as progressive. Still, move to the left or stay centrist? This poll says move to the left. It’s not a huge percentage saying that, 52-48 percent, although it climbs to 69-31 in the 18 to 34-year-old age group.

This Nation piece takes the status quo to task, too, saying the DNC blew off its core voters in favor of big money donors.

What every pundit opines is that the voters want an authentic candidate — not some namby-pamby, issue-dodging milquetoast.

But a sure path to defeat is a party schism. Leave that to the Republicans and to be honest, most traditional Republicans are scared shitless that Bannon will find some alt-right schmuck to run against them if they don’t toe the Trump line (think Daines and Gianforte) so, they’re sticking together. Sure, a couple have spoken truth to Trump — Flake and Corker, for example — but they’re a tiny minority.

It raises a question. Mainstream Republicans quiver in fear from a far-right challenger. Are centrist Democrats threatened by challengers from the left wing of the party? Let’s hope not. Progressive candidates should be encouraged and embraced by the party. In primary elections, let the chips fall where they may.

There’s the recent flare up from Donna Brazile, former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, saying the committee was rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. The finger pointing has trickled down to Montana, too. The evidence speaks to a poorly managed national party, but “rigged” is overstating the controversy. I’m guessing the party thought it was doing what was best for the candidate it figured had the greatest chance of winning in the general election, as misguided as that may have been. The party needs some serious introspection and a few “mea culpas.”

And while I’m usually a fan of George Ochenski’s columns, his latest “rotten fish” opinion piece does little to assist Democrats in winning back seats, particularly at the state level. Purging leadership in Helena ahead of the 2018 midterm election will leave the party in disarray.

Now is not the time to be a fractured party; let’s keep our eye on the prize.

To Democrats at the state and national level: let bygones be bygones, unite around an economic package of health care, strong unions, reining in Wall Street, a living wage and fair taxation. Run authentic candidates and don’t be wimps.

Except for Trump and his cabinet, and two out of our three Montana members of congress, climate change is a real thing affecting agriculture, forests, prairies, tourism and our own cherished recreational opportunities. The party can mix in an environmental message, besides public lands, without alienating the rank and file. It would play well with young, up-and-coming voters, too.

The NYT piece was titled “The Post-Obama Democratic Party in Search of Itself.” Keep in mind that the Obama mantra of “Hope and Change” resonated with the electorate. Advance candidates with a similar hope and change message focused on working class and main street economics, and don’t be buddying up to big banks, big pharma and big insurance.

There are tremors in the Trump house of cards. With a message of “for the many not the few” (borrowed from the UK’s winning Labour Party) Democrats can win the majorities needed to right the state and vanquish the regressive plutocracy that’s currently in charge of our country.


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About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.


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  • “Purging leadership in Helena ahead of the 2018 midterm election will leave the party in disarray.”

    Um…I thought the Party was in disarray now. Isn’t that what a 1/5 statewide showing in 2016 tells us? Isn’t that what losing close to 1,000 state legislature seats over the past decade means? Isn’t that what historic losses in both the 2014 and 2016 congressional races means?

    Can’t you see this?

    • This gets tiresome, Trollberg. If you were really interested in some analysis as to why Democrats suffered losses in 2014 and 2016, instead of just promoting your own brand, I’d spend some time on it. But you’re not, so I won’t.

  • Pete, your strategy is pretty much meat and potatoes democrat priorities: “an economic package of health care, strong unions, reining in Wall Street, a living wage and fair taxation… climate change.” There’s nothing new except “authentic candidates,” which the dem party has been unsuccessful with — unless you want to label recent dem losers “inauthentic.”

    What’s missing, besides the obvious (to this rank and file enviro) dismissal of public lands policy as necessary to the dem party, are the great issues of our time: wealth inequality; endless military spending and hegemonic empire (bases, wars, and the fight against “terrorism”); the descent of capitalism into an end stage incapable of meeting the needs neither a burgeoning population nor the environment (i.e. what to replace neoliberalism with?); and conversion of the populace into marginalized sectors dependent on others (the state, NGOs, families, debt, etc.) to survive, or die.

    I don’t see how paens to climate change, strong unions, reigning in Wall Street, livable wages, health care, etc. are going to reinvigorate the democrat party. The way dems go about those issues are rooted in failed perspectives.

    A policy framework to entice disaffected voters?

    Here, say it loud and clear: single payer health care; discard neoliberalism and promote a variant of democratic socialism that minimizes wealth inequity; pursue an economic structure not dependent upon constant (unsustainable) growth that recognizes real limits to growth; enact major financial reforms that allow banks and financial services to fail (end “too big to fail” a concept Jon Tester and the traditional dems will hate), heavily regulate sectors built around the unproductive financialization of the economy — end “unearned” income, and fairly tax all investment income and micro transactions, etc; dismantle the empire (before WWIII makes all of this moot) and allow a multi-polar world to evolve (no more being the world’s cop full of bagman politicians, businessmen/women, and unaccountable transnational corporations); advance campaign/constitutional reforms to return elections to the people (get rid of money=speech); decriminalize victimless crimes; and promote a return to Montana-style libertarian values of “live and let live” that rejects classism, racism, bigotry and sexism (replacing the problems of identity politics).

    If dems aren’t willing or able to do this, the party that inevitably replaces them will. A dem strategy rooted in the past, with candidates tacking on “authenticity” will fail — Rob Quist with his cowboy hat, down-home homilies, and the strategy you posed above proved it by losing to a despicable oligarch.

  • J.C., I’d encourage you to get your brothers and sisters together, start building lists, start raising a (small donation) war chest and start your grassroots campaign to replace the neolibs and right wingers. Hell, get enough momentum and I might jump on board.

    Until then, the Montana Democratic Party is the only vehicle I see for advancing any kind of progressive change in our state. I’m not going to tackle the national party, yet. You know the old adage, “think globally, act locally.” The above post is mostly about Montana politics. Sure, not all MT Dem. candidates are progressives by our measure but many are.

    I’ll tell you what, though, knock on someone’s door with a message of “wealth inequality; endless military spending and hegemonic empire, the descent of capitalism into an end stage incapable of meeting the needs (of) neither a burgeoning population nor the environment, and conversion of the populace into marginalized sectors dependent on others… ” and watch their eyes glaze over — unless that door belongs to Noam Chomsky.

    You know as well as I that this is Montana — a purple state that leans right. Our most successful Democratic candidates of late are big, centrist men with brush cuts and bolo ties (Tester and Schweitzer). Bullock isn’t cut from the same cloth but he is a centrist (and a shrewd campaigner).

    At the very least, our elected MT Dems will push back against the alt-right agenda at the state and national level. (For example, on the right: the Fielders; the Rosendale, Hertz and Knudsen kin; the Tschidas and Skees of Montana. Pruitt, Zinke, DeVos, Sessions, Perry — the list is endless — at national the level.

    Of course we want more, and much of the conversation within the national party these days is: do we lean Bernie or Hillary? This debate is filtering down to the states, too. While we hammer this out, though, the last thing we need is a fractured party. Nothing would make Republicans happier. That’s the message I was trying to convey in my post.

    • I should add that it wasn’t Quist’s platform — much of it quite progressive, although it was tamped down a bit by “consultants” in the latter stages of the campaign — that cost him the election. It was some really bad press and a really negative ad campaign from his multi-millionaire opponent, coupled with Gianforte’s earlier statewide experience and exposure against a neophyte candidate that did the trick.

  • JC — Uh? Question, what do Nancy Keenan and Mark O’Keefe have in common? Answer, the both lost running the sort of campaign you are suggesting. Nancy ran as a Montana Fighter. Denny Rehberg ran as First Dad. Mark ran as a Montana Progressive. Didn’t get him elected either. Before you get too excited, a lot of recent Montana history might be in order, especially a lot of Montana electoral history. There was also a smart, articulate policy wonk that ran for the PSC in the DIstrict that includes Billing, I forget his name. He got shellacked— I think it was by Brad Molnire (sp).

    I don’t know the answers to how to change the politics of Montana. What I do know is that until “Progressives” figure out a message that resonates beyond the choir, we will continue to lose elections.

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