Bucking tradition 

How Democrats broke from the norm in the 2014 primaries

Shortly after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced last year that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2014, Schweitzer’s former lieutenant governor, John Bohlinger, began kicking the tires on a campaign of his own. Some had asked if he’d seek the office, and Bohlinger felt that his two decades in state government combined with three decades as a small business owner would go over well with voters. So on Nov. 5, the man who once served as a Republican in the Montana Legislature officially stated his intent to run on the Democratic ticket.

Not everyone seemed keen on the idea. According to a story Bohlinger shared widely with the media last fall—and reiterated to the Indy several weeks ago—that November declaration was preceded one day earlier by a call from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Bohlinger claims Reid told him the Democrats had “chosen their candidate and didn’t want a contested primary” in Montana. The candidate was then-Lt. Gov. John Walsh.

Bohlinger was unfazed. “I’m not a cry baby or a whiner,” he said. Three months later, with Max Baucus named the new U.S. ambassador to China, Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Walsh to fill the Senate vacancy. Just like that the Democratic primary had an incumbent.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • TJ McDermott
  • Missoula County Democrats changed the organization’s bylaws in order to endorse sheriff candidate T.J. McDermott, pictured above flanked by Mayor John Engen and County Commissioner Jean Curtiss. McDermott was one of many endorsed Democratic candidates to win during the June 3 primaries.

On June 3, Walsh won handily, defeating Bohlinger by 31,346 votes (Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams, the third primary candidate, lost to Walsh by more than 38,000 votes). Walsh’s campaign virtually ignored the Democratic competition, instead concentrating its message on Republican frontrunner and acting Congressman Steve Daines. Many in the party lined up squarely behind him, including Bullock, Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester. Even the Montana Democratic Party gave Walsh its endorsement, deviating from a long-standing tradition of avoiding participation in primaries. The organization has only done so for two candidates in the past decade: Schweitzer and Baucus. In an even rarer move, the MDP also endorsed U.S. House candidate John Lewis against past Democratic primary spoiler John Driscoll. Lewis won with 13,913 more votes than Driscoll.

“We stood with the majority of Democrats behind the strongest candidates to fight for our values and our working families this fall,” says MDP spokesperson Bryan Watt.

The state party wasn’t the only Democratic entity to break from the norm in what looked to be a tense and competitive primary season. There were no official endorsements involved, but the Gallatin County Democratic Central Committee did decide to step up communication efforts relating to three legislative battles. Kathy Hollenback, Mike Comstock and Dane Peeples were all pegged by the committee as “fake” Democrats—Republican spoilers looking to oust primary candidates April Buonamici, Tom Woods and Denise Hayman.

“Usually the people that file have been vetted by us and encouraged by the Gallatin County Democrats to file,” says Committee Chair Julie Quenemoen. “And when their names came up we started looking into them and found various things that were obviously not Democrat values in their background, such as donating to Republican candidates and being part of some militia organizations and participating in Tea Party events … Plus, we’d never had them at any of our events or no one really knew them or had met them, so it was pretty obvious.”

Former Committee Chair Bill McWilliams adds that the organization has “always been relatively quiet” during the Democratic primaries. But the presence on the ballot of three potential spoilers pushed the party to phone and email voters with information on those it considered the true Democrats. McWilliams is confident the effort paid off; all three of the questionable candidates failed at the polls. Frankly, McWilliams says, the development helped.

“It gets our base excited to vote, we collect more money and it allows our candidate to be better known in the district,” he says. “So I’m not sure that [the suspect Democrats] were rocket scientists running for office.”

The most notable aberration in Missoula came in the form of a change in the Missoula County Democrats’ bylaws—a change that enabled the group to endorse a candidate in the county sheriff’s race. During one candidate forum, members of the central committee began to feel that two of the candidates were not espousing entirely Democratic values. Seeley Lake-based Senior Deputy Bob Parcell even acknowledged that he’d voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the last presidential election. Committee members discussed the matter at length, says chair Dave Kendall, before deciding to breach a longstanding rule: They endorsed Detective Sgt. T.J. McDermott.

“Clearly, we didn’t take this lightly,” Kendall says. “We generally want to have good, competitive races in the Democratic party. That’s a good thing for everybody, and we’re not trying to limit—we don’t have any power to limit—peoples’ participation in the primary. What we are simply offering is our opinion about who we thought was a good Democrat in the race to give people that knowledge of our judgment.”

McDermott won by 2,902 votes over his closest challenger, Undersheriff Josh Clark.

Kendall says that while the committee likely won’t reverse the bylaw change, endorsements will not become commonplace. As with other Democratic primary races this year, the Missoula County sheriff’s race was one in which party members saw stakes too high not to act.

“We thought it was an important race because of the problems in the sheriff’s office,” Kendall says. “There’s been numerous management issues, people there are not happy … Of all the races, this was one Democrats felt was really important to get right.”

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