Dandruff election: Mixed primary elevates flakey candidates to top tier

Montana’s primary election delivered a mixed bag of results and more than a few surprises this week. The outcome of our last-in-the-nation vote in the monumental struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drew nearly twice as many Democrats to the polls as Republicans. Like the outcome, that was not a surprise. What was surprising is the result of some of the other top-tier races, in what one political wag called “the dandruff election—flakes everywhere.”

As we go to press, the big unanswered question remains: When will Hillary give it up? Obama, who rallied strong support from energized young voters, went over the top in the delegate count on Tuesday and became the presumptive nominee to face Republican challenger John McCain for the presidency. While most people figured Hillary would graciously bow out once Obama cracked the necessary number of delegates to clinch the nomination, one of the election-day surprises is that she has, so far at least, vowed to “fight on.” The question that immediately comes to mind is: What for? Obviously the time has come to end the battle and unite the Democrats, and hopefully by the time this hits print Senator Clinton will have come to the same conclusion.

In the meantime, Sen. Max Baucus can pretty much put his feet up and his $6 million in remaining campaign funds to some other use than the November election. In what is perhaps the most baffling of this election’s results, Baucus finds himself facing 85-year-old Bob Kelleher on the Republican ticket. Kelleher has been a perennial candidate on various ballots over his many years, but has about as much chance of ousting Baucus as he does of flying to the moon. Tough to figure out why the Republicans wouldn’t want to give Max a tougher run for his money (so to speak), but in this regard, as the race for Montana’s lone House seat shows, they have more than a little in common with the Democrats.

Helena attorney Jim Hunt raised about $200,000 in his bid to take on Rep. Denny Rehberg, which would normally indicate a serious challenger. But surprise, surprise, the guy who walked away with the top votes in the primary was not Jim Hunt, but former legislator and PSC Commissioner John Driscoll, who didn’t even bother to raise or spend any money or campaign statewide, and said he would be happy to have Hunt win the race. Instead, he wound up with 49% of the vote and will now challenge Rehberg in the fall.

The big question here is why the Democrats aren’t taking this race more seriously since Rehberg is now the lone Republican Montanans send to Washington. With Baucus facing virtually no challenge and Tester safely ensconced in his Senate seat for another 4 years, the Dems could and should have concentrated their energy and assets on giving Rehberg a real run—something he has not had for years and something Jim Hunt could have provided. Instead, the day Hunt announced his candidacy, Art Noonan, the director of the Demo Party, cut Hunt’s feet out from under him when he told reporters that they were looking at Hunt’s challenge to Rehberg as a “four-year project.” Now, however, it would appear that they have blown it off altogether—which is tremendously disappointing to those who hoped to bring a more progressive voice to the U. S. House. Perhaps there will be some miraculous re-focusing of their efforts, but at this point, it looks like Rehberg gets another free ride.

Speaking of free rides, the supposed challenge to Governor Brian Schweitzer in the primary by blogger-teacher candidates Don Pogreba and Jason Neiffer was a total bust. When the blogger team announced their “challenge” to Schweitzer, many took it for what it appeared to be—a way to allow Schweitzer to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds he would otherwise have to return without a primary race. But no, said Pogreba, their candidacy was serious and they intended to use it as a platform for debate on school funding and energy policy. Not only didn’t the debate happen, Pogreba and Neiffer never even completed their campaign website.

If the bloggers blew it on that race, there is some indication the blogosphere may have proved useful to Attorney General candidate Steve Bullock in his successful primary battle against former state senator Mike Wheat and House Minority Leader John Parker. Bullock drew endorsements from some of Montana’s prominent leftie bloggers and now goes on to face Republican Tim Fox in November.

Look for this to be a hard-fought race as the Republicans have already announced their intention to “take back the Land Board.” This is kind of mysterious in and of itself since Republicans haven’t held a majority of the Land Board in decades. Nonetheless, in the rush to develop Montana’s energy resources and log its state lands, apparently the GOP thinks it can do a better job than Governor Schweitzer at turning Montana into an energy colony for the nation. It would be better to see someone from either party begin to focus on reducing skyrocketing energy costs for Montanans instead of selling us out, but apparently that’s not important to any of our top-tier politicians so far.

One positive result on the energy front for progressives is the strong showing from former legislator Gail Gutsche in her bid to replace Republican Public Service Commissioner Doug Mood. Given the heavily skewed turnout, it’s tough to make an accurate prediction of what will happen in the general election, but Gutsche’s numbers look impressive as she racked up twice what Mood pulled, including more than 18,000 votes in Missoula County alone.

As the signs come down and the dandruff settles, Montanans get a well-deserved breather from the political overload of the last couple months to enjoy the coming season. November’s elections, I assure you, will be here soon enough.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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