Strange bedfellows 

Why Forward Montana decided to back Republicans

Debra Bonogofsky, a Billings Rep-ublican, had never heard of Forward Montana. She certainly wasn't aware that the Missoula-based progressive political group supported her campaign for a House seat in District 57 ahead of the primary election earlier this month.

But you can forgive Bonogofsky for being in the dark because Forward Montana wasn't so much working for her as it was against her opponent, Dan Kennedy, a Tea Party Republican from Laurel who campaigned on being "100 percent for protecting the rights of the unborn, pro-gun rights, and pro-freedom."

Forward Montana also supported Shawn Moran, though he didn't know it either. Moran is a moderate Gallatin County Republican who ran against Art Wittich in Senate District 35. Wittich, an attorney, succinctly listed on his campaign website the four issues he cares about: less taxes and spending, property rights, gun rights and abortion.

And Forward Montana backed Republican Jesse Barnhart, of Broadus, who challenged incumbent Lee Randall in House District 39. Randall, also of Broadus, has served one term in Helena. He calls global climate change a hoax and laments on his website that "our environmental agency are [sic] telling us when you exhale CO2 you are a polluter and cow manure is killing sea creatures in the Gulf of Mexico. Its [sic] seems government would prefer control to freedom."

click to enlarge Moderates Jesse Barnhart, left, and Debra Bonogofsky were two of the three Republicans the Missoula-based progressive political group Forward Montana backed during the June 8 primary elections. All three lost to more conservative candidates Forward Montana was hoping to keep away from Helena.
  • Moderates Jesse Barnhart, left, and Debra Bonogofsky were two of the three Republicans the Missoula-based progressive political group Forward Montana backed during the June 8 primary elections. All three lost to more conservative candidates Forward Montana was hoping to keep away from Helena.

The 2010 primary elections marked the first time Forward Montana, known for its creative approaches to fostering political engagement since its inception in 2004, supported candidates during a primary election, and the first time it worked on behalf of Republicans. The strategic shift reflects the group's desire to back moderate candidates on the right as ultra-conservatives veer further away from progressive ideals.

"We saw some reasonable Republicans running against people who are basically pushing to take the Republican Party in the state even further off the deep end," explains Forward Montana CEO Matt Singer, "and so we decided to see if we could help with a little course correction."

The initiative mainly meant working the phones. Singer says Forward Montana spent as much as $1,000 on calling residents in Bonogofsky, Moran and Barnhart's districts about the candidates' merits. But it wasn't enough.

"We went a big 0-3," Singer says.

Kennedy beat Bonogofsky by about nine percentage points. Wittich took 50 percent of the vote to easily beat Moran and two other candidates. Randall walloped Barnhart by about 26 percentage points.

Doubts about Forward Montana's strategy to support Republicans during primaries cropped up before the disappointing results came in two weeks ago.

"We had some of our own supporters who were very critical of the fact that we were working with any Republicans at all," Singer says. "But for the leadership of our organization—and we had a lot of conversations about this—what it ultimately came down to is a belief that, if we're going to have a state with a Legislature that is working for all of us, we need to have two political parties that are willing to work together to find solutions on the big stuff, like the $400 million hole in the budget and some of the other big challenges we're facing.

"It's not really a matter of liberal or conservative," Singer continues. "It's really a matter of, can they go in there and get the job done in 90 days, get a budget passed, and not have to go into a special session?"

Forward Montana wasn't the only progressive group to back moderate Republicans during the primary. Montana Conservation Voters (MCV) also endorsed Bonogofsky, and it backed Mark Noennig's election bid in Senate District 23. They were the only Republicans among the 11 candidates MCV supported—and the only ones to lose. Noennig, a former four-term member of the House, lost to Alan Olson, a current four-term member of the House, by about 16 percentage points. Olson boasts of his voting records with the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Family Foundation and Montana Right to Life.

MCV Director Theresa Keaveny says her group routinely supports Republicans in primaries, and the candidate it supports has little to do with who the alternative might be.

"We endorsed [Bonogofsky]," Keaveny says, "because she...stood up for developing our small business economy in an environmentally sound manner, and we thought she would be a champion in defending the public's right to public access for hunting and fishing."

Just how much money Forward Montana, MCV and other progressive groups spent on Republican primaries will be revealed after they file post-primary campaign finance reports in the coming weeks.

Whatever Forward Montana's investment, Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps dismisses the group's effort as nothing more than a political stunt to help candidates closest to the left and to justify continuing to call itself nonpartisan. He doesn't think Forward Montana's efforts have anything to do with the widening gap between moderate and conservative Republicans.

"It doesn't say anything about the party other than we're a broad-based party, that we encompass a wide spectrum of individuals who have diverse thoughts [about] what's best for the state of Montana," says Deschamps.

Singer maintains Forward Montana's first foray into the Republican fold, however ineffective, won't be its last.

"Our board certainly had a lively discussion over whether this was the right use of organizational resources and the right priority," he says. "But by the end, we had pretty strong agreement that this was the sort of thing we need to try to do."

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