In Montana, GOP Looks to Regroup After Primary Infighting

BY Lee Banville  June 14, 2010 at 1:51 PM EDT

As we get further from last week’s primaries and the rush of analysis on races in Nevada, Arkansas and California, there’s more to say about what’s happening politically at the state level. In Montana, there was only one statewide race for a sole U.S. House seat. The lion’s share of candidates ran for state House and Senate seats, sheriff and judgeships.

In this year of anti-incumbent fervor, more minor races wound up contested, especially on the Republican side of the ticket. Many political commentators in the state chalked these new candidates up to the tea party movement, and some of the more contentious contests did pit more moderate Republican incumbents against harder conservatives.

In the end, though, it seems Tuesday’s primary confirmed a basic truth of politics: People dislike all incumbents except their own. In Montana, only one incumbent lost a seat in the state Legislature, and that first-termer lost to a term-limited state senator who decided to switch houses in Helena. So, where, to paraphrase Bob Dole, is all the voter outrage?

For a while, it looked like it was out there and centered right in the middle of the Republican Party.

Rancor in the Ranks

Just a glance at Montana shows how much the vast state leans Republican. In Patchwork Nation, the state is dominated by rural Tractor Country counties, with a smattering of small town Service Worker Centers and growing Boom Towns. Across those places, there were signs of anger.

The five-term Republican U.S. House member, Denny Rehberg, was being challenged not just by a tea party-type on the right but also a liberal Republican on the left. Some of the down-ticket races turned into rather entertaining mud fights.

One started when state Sen. John Brueggeman coordinated a radio buy with a Washington, D.C., group called Main Street Advocacy for several of the contested primaries around the state. Brueggeman said he had organized the effort to help “rational conservatives” who, during the 2008 primaries, had been targeted by some groups as liberals or even, more dramatically, “socialists.”

“It kind of caught us off-guard; we weren’t going to let that happen in the 2010 cycle,” Brueggeman told The Missoulian newspaper.. “What they did was pretty awful. At best, it was nasty misrepresentation. … We said, ‘If that’s the way they’re going to play, we’re going to get organized and we’re going to be totally positive.’”

But rather than putting out the fire of intra-party strife, it lit one. First, the state party was forced to issue a press release distancing itself from the ads, saying, “The Montana Republican Party wants to make clear that it is not affiliated in any way with the Main Street Advocacy, nor has it sanctioned or approved of the ads being presently run by Main Street Advocacy.” You can read the whole release here.

Main Street yanked the ads a few days later, but conservative groups were not going to let the effort pass without a response, which came in the form of a mailing in many of the districts where the ads had run. Sent by a nonregistered group called Assembly Action Group, the mailings accused certain lawmakers of being allied with “liberal Washington insiders working with a violent left-wing union” – words that carry a punch in rural Montana. The mailing also labeled Main Street as an elitist D.C. group committed to “working to defeat the Tea Party’s conservative message.”

It was all phenomenal fodder for the few political reporters covering the primary, but in the end it is hard to see what, if any, effect the tea party folks or the fight over them had on the voters. Of the 25 candidates tea party activists were pushing for in the state House races, 12 came out on top, but most of those were either incumbents or strong contenders to begin with.

In the U.S. House race, the more libertarian/tea party-friendly challenger to Rehberg only scored 19 percent of the GOP primary vote. Rehberg won every county in the state. Even in Lake County, a rural Tractor Country community where we covered the growing tea party movement earlier this year, Rehberg scored a decisive win (although, it is notable that the tea party-friendly candidate scored 25 percent – 6 points higher than his statewide average).

“[W]hen the dust settled and the final ballots were counted, it was pretty much the same old, same old in Montana,” political commentator George Ochenski wrote in a column in the Missoula Independent.

The Meaning for November

That did not prevent the Democrats from taking great pleasure in commenting on the stormy Republican primary.

“Who’s in charge over there?” Democratic Party Chairman Jim Elliott said to the AP. “I have never seen primary challenges like this, ever. It shows me there are deep divisions in the Republican Party, and the infighting is unprecedented.”

But the Democrats shouldn’t take too much comfort from Tuesday’s vote out here. Although the Democrats had four candidates on the ballot to go up against Rehberg in the fall, Republicans cast twice as many votes as Democrats in the primary. In fact, in looking at the where voter turnout was particularly weak, two of the state’s Boom Town counties — Gallatin and Missoula — stand out. The counties are home to Montana State and the University of Montana, respectively, and both saw very weak turnout Tuesday.

The two counties are key to any hopes Democrats harbor in taking the House seat — seen as a longshot at best — and are home to the pockets of liberal Democrats in the state Legislature.

Perhaps it would have been different if senior Sen. Max Baucus, who helped guide the health care bill through Congress, had been up for election. When talking with the tea party folks out here, it’s clear they’re more likely to mobilize on that national debate — or, say, the finer points of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution or federal intrusion into banking. State budgets and the like give them less to chew on.

Of course, they do have five more months to find those Montana issues that light the patriotic fire.

Lee Banville is the former editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour and is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Montana at Missoula. He is also a digital strategy adviser to the NewsHour.