Handicapping Montana's open House seat, post-Zinke: Could a Dem win? 

In the two weeks since we last considered the future of Montana's seat in the House of Representatives (see "Playing chicken," Dec. 22), no fewer than six Republicans have expressed interest in running to replace Ryan Zinke, who's been picked by Trump to head the Interior Department. Assuming they make good on their plans, that's a cool ten grand for the state GOP.

The Republican Party of Montana has announced that it will charge candidates who file for the special election $1,740 apiece—the same amount they'd pay to run in a regular primary. A committee will meet to select the Republican nominee sometime during the next two months, which presumably will cost a lot less than organizing polls across the state. But the party wants the money anyway.

"The fee is set in Montana statutes when a candidate would file to run in either a Democrat or Republican primary," GOP chair Jeff Essman told the Billings Gazette. "So our state committee meeting will be performing the same purpose as a primary."

That's the kind of fee-for-service model I like to see in politics. It harks back to the 19th century, when the parties were moneymaking operations as much as instruments of democracy. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my steaks rare and my Republicans Gilded Age. I was therefore thrilled to learn that one of the half-dozen candidates for the GOP nomination is Bozeman's own Eugene Graf IV.

He hasn't paid the fee yet, but I don't think that will be a problem. Graf is the scion of a family fortune in real estate development. Although he has never run for public office, he is a fifth-generation Montanan, as the IV suggests. Like many people with Roman numerals in their names, he looks like the villain in a movie about golf. I hereby endorse him based on this quality, and because I would like to see Montana politics return to its roots in naked corporatocracy.

My guy never wins, though. The likely leader in the Republican field is Ed Buttrey, state senator from Great Falls and former majority whip. Buttrey is widely credited with orchestrating the compromise that led to Montana accepting federal funding for Medicaid expansion last session. Conservatives revile him for that same reason. Art Wittich, who can really open up on Twitter now that he's out of office, greeted Buttrey's candidacy by calling him a Democrat. But the absence of a credible challenger from the right tells us something about the relative power of the GOP's two competing factions.

click to enlarge Amanda Curtis - PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDAFORMONTANA.COM
  • photo courtesy of amandaformontana.com
  • Amanda Curtis

If the conservative wing of the party can't mount a substantive threat to Buttrey's nomination, their insurrection is probably over. Their only victory in the last session was fairly pyrrhic: By blocking a popular infrastructure bill at the last minute, they gave everyone in Helena something to resent them for over the break. If they cannot steer the state committee away from Buttrey, it will be a sign that their influence has waned to near zero. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Republican side of this process is that it might finally establish that Montana's right wing is good at rhetoric but bad at politics.

As usual, the Democrats are boring by comparison. They aren't charging people to run. None of their candidates is an amusing caricature of a rich person or even a symbol of internecine conflict. Somehow, every news report on the prospective Democratic field includes Denise Juneau, even though she has said nothing about running again. Perhaps she is making way for Amanda Curtis, who picked up 40 percent of the vote running as a replacement candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014, after John Walsh withdrew two months ahead of the election.

Curtis has demonstrated that she can perform well in a statewide race on short notice—almost as well as Juneau, who got only 41 percent of the vote against Zinke in November after running a full campaign. Many of the Democratic state committee members who selected Curtis to replace Walsh will also sit on the committee that chooses a nominee for the special election.

That election will tell us something about the strength of the Republican brand as it compares to Zinke's particular charm. The GOP has held Montana's seat in Congress for a long time, but Buttrey is not a character in the same way as Commander Zinke. In Curtis, the Democrats have a candidate who is less experienced but potentially more likable. This might be their chance to capitalize on a divided GOP and put up an off-year victory. Whether that will mean anything for their party in Washington is too depressing to contemplate just now. But when you're in the wilderness, every win counts.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture, and the high character of wealthy heirs at combatblog.net.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Dem for the win?"

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