As the sun rises in the east this morning, it looks like the Republican party will continue its domination of Montana’s policy arena and open the new century in full control of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature. Likewise, the GOP retained control of the U.S. Senate seat and Montana’s lone congressional representative. Combined with Republican control of the U.S. House and Senate and a projected Bush victory in the presidential race, we now face a new Republican era in which the traditional checks and balances of our two-party system fall by the wayside. How did it happen and what’s it all mean? U.S. Senate
Incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns held on to his seat in the face of an awesome challenge mounted by political newcomer Brian Schweitzer, a successful Whitefish farmer. The race drew national attention when Schweitzer took busloads of Montanans over the border to Canada to buy prescription drugs at a fraction of their cost here in the U.S. Burns, who first took the Senate seat in 1988, broke his own campaign promise to only serve two terms and will return to Washington for his third six-year stint. As one of the Senate’s leading recipients of corporate largesse, Burns is likely to make sure his big business buddies are repaid in spades for their support.
U.S. House of Representatives
Denny Rehberg, once known as a key Republican operative during his time in the Montana Legislature, remade himself into a man who believes “it’s not about Republicans or Democrats, but what’s good for Montana.” It was an appealing image that his opponent, Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan, was unable to conquer. Rehberg, who has worked as a D.C. staffer and was Racicot’s first lieutenant governor, has always shown a strong proclivity toward extractive industries and opposes abortion rights. The Montana race was being closely watched as one that could help tip the narrow Republican majority in the House to the Democrats—but in the end, failed to do so.
In a hotly contested race, Democrat Mark O’Keefe dumped a record $2.2 million of his own money into the campaign to break the 12-year Republican occupation of the Governor’s Office. His opponent, Lieutenant Governor Judy Martz, fought back hammer and claw, accusing O’Keefe of being a “liberal millionaire.” Martz promised to improve Montana’s struggling economy by making it more friendly to business interests by lowering taxes and reducing regulations. O’Keefe, who questioned Martz’s readiness to lead the state, labored under the burden of his own remarks that perhaps he was the “worst nightmare” to a group of large corporations who dumped hundreds of thousands of “soft money” dollars into advertising to defeat him.
Martz’s promises to make Montana more business-friendly will likely come at the cost of shifting taxes away from businesses and onto citizens. Look for more environmental problems if she is successful in following Racicot’s trend of less regulation of major extractive industries.
“Tier B” Races
While Republicans swept the “Tier A” races, Democrats garnered some victories in other state-wide contests. Mike McGrath, the Lewis & Clark County Attorney, defeated Jim Rice, a Helena lawyer, to maintain Democrat control of the AG’s office. Helena attorney John Morrison won his bid to succeed Mark O’Keefe as state auditor, and Linda McCulloch, a Missoula teacher, succeeds Nancy Keenan to become the state’s new superintendent of public instruction. The Republicans picked up one of the formerly-Demo seats as Bob Brown, former president of the senate, defeated Hal Harper, a former speaker of the house, for Secretary of State.
The winners will join Governor-elect Martz on the Land Board, which oversees the uses on 5.2 million acres of state-owned lands. A narrow 3-2 Democrat majority promises to provide interesting debate as Republicans look longingly at developing of state lands.
The Public Service Commission
Long held by solid Democrat majorities, the Public Service Commission, which regulates the provision of public utilities, has now slipped to the Republican side of the ledger, as Jay Stovall of Billings defeated Democrat Pat Dawson to claim a seat formerly held by Democrat Nancy McAfree. Missoula’s Matt Brainerd, a former Republican legislator, similarly bumped current PSC chairman Dave Fischer of Butte from his seat, resulting in a 3-2 Republican majority.
The PSC, which had been looked to as a mechanism to buffer the effects of deregulation on energy prices, is now unlikely to do so. The Republicans, who support deregulation, are much more likely to encourage further energy development as a method of increasing competition and hence, providing lower energy costs to Montanans. Look for the approval of more drilling, more power plants and increased coal-bed methane development from this PSC.
How Did It Happen? What Does It Mean?
Continued Republican domination of the state’s highest offices and Legislature pretty much ensures that the current policies of the Racicot administration will continue. In the recent past, the Democrat administration of President Clinton kept the Montana Republican cartel at least partially in check. But with George Bush as president, that will no longer exist—the EPA will again become a toothless dog, much as it was under Reagan and Bush. Women will find themselves in a battle for reproductive rights. Workers will take it in the shorts, too, as minimum wage hikes give way to tax breaks for the wealthy.
Montana is in for a wild Republican ride as the reins are let slip on corporate avarice, damage and responsibility. The Helena political insiders, who generously call themselves political strategists, have augmented their impressive record of losing Democrat offices for the last 12 years by losing even more this year. Perhaps, and it is more than just my hope, this stale old cabal will finally bow out and take their pollsters with them. And perhaps, in the coming years, with new blood, new ideas and new energy, the Democrats can once again turn Montana back into a two-party state. But for now, that is all conjecture and we are in for at least another four years of Republicans calling the shots. Heaven help us.