By all accounts, the 2006 U.S. Senate race was one of the most fascinating elections in Montana history. It had everything a political wonk could want: scandal, corruption, verbal faux pas, missing appendages…

And it kicked off early, with national Democrats pumping cash into Montana to launch a negative campaign against Conrad Burns in the summer of 2005. That first strike was the first sign that it was going to be a long and hard-fought race. It culminated in a narrow victory by Jon Tester that pushed Democrats over the top in the U.S. Senate for the first time in five years and continued to relegate the state GOP to a role to which it’s still unaccustomed: minority party.

Now, taking a page out of the Democrats’ playbook, a right-wing political group with ties to Republican financiers set a new record for early campaigning in Montana by launching a telephone poll earlier this month testing negative campaign messages against Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus, the state’s top Democrats up for re-election in 2008.

But with Schweitzer and Baucus sitting on high approval ratings and even higher piles of cash, even Republicans recognize that the waters they’re testing could be pretty chilly.

“It’s certainly news to me that they’re already testing the negatives,” says one former top Republican operative. “It doesn’t make any sense, because we don’t have anyone to run against Brian or Max.

A poll released earlier this month by the Center for Rural Strategies suggests that Republicans nationwide are losing ground with their rural base. According to the poll, 66 percent of rural Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction, and they blame Republicans. That could mean even more trouble for a party hoping to cash in on Montana’s tradition of giving its three electoral votes to Republican presidential candidates.

Meanwhile, state Republicans are struggling with a growing ideological divide between moderates and ultra-conservatives, stemming from the 2007 Legislative session.

“The key for Republicans will be: can they heal the fissure and run candidates without hacking each other up out there?” suggests MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson.

On June 21, state Republicans will gather in Helena for their three-day annual convention, featuring guest cheerleader and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Imagine that: Montana Republicans rallying behind a flip-flopping Mormon from Massachusetts. Yeah, that ought to turn things around.
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