Off to the races 

2006 elections no one-trick pony

Last week’s filing deadline for those seeking elected office brought to an end the frantic search for candidates by Montana’s political parties—and oh what an interesting end it turned out to be. The Democrats crow that they recruited a record number of candidates, the Republicans are feisty despite the black cloud hanging over Sen. Conrad Burns, and the Constitution Party, the newcomer on the block, promises to add some interesting twists to Montana’s standard two-party foxtrot.

There can be little doubt that the state’s highest-profile race, for Conrad Burns’ U.S. Senate seat, is also turning out to be one of the strangest in recent times. Ever since former Washington, D.C., superlobbyist Jack Abramoff hit the skids for his mind-numbing, years-long series of ethical violations, the question of Burns’ ties to Abramoff have hung like the Sword of Damocles over the race. Those ties include Burns’ dubious honor of having taken the most money of any member of Congress from Abramoff and his clients, having a number of his staffers go to work for Abramoff’s lobbying firm, and some rather hard to explain votes and committee actions that seem to reek of special-interest influence rather than logic.

Speculation ran rampant that, despite his incumbency and the burgeoning campaign war chest it has produced, Burns would be dragged down by Abramoff’s promise to “name names” before they send him off to prison. Then former governor Marc Racicot set political tongues wagging when he made a point of contacting editorial boards across the state during a Christmas holiday visit last year.

For many pundits, Racicot’s reappearance could mean only one thing—he was planning to jump into the Senate race when Burns got burned in an effort to maintain Republican control of the Senate for the remainder of his friend George W. Bush’s presidency. So important was the race for Burns’ seat, said the wagging tongues, that Racicot was willing to give up his seven-figure salary as head of the American Insurance Association.

But if Racicot had any intention of winning a Montana election, touting the wisdom of utility deregulation and praising George Bush as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history was hardly the way to get it done. Unlike Racicot, Montanans were living the reality of deregulation and suffering with crippling winter utility bills. Meanwhile, far from greatness, Bush was on a precipitous slide downward to the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

Then, just before the filing deadline, John Mercer resigned as Chair of the Board of Regents. Mercer, the longest-serving Speaker of the House in the state’s history, has long been considered a force to be reckoned with and the wagging tongues went nuts. Obviously it would be Mercer, not Racicot, who would step in when Burns went down. And just look, said the pundits, he has renounced the error of his ways on education funding, made a plea to lower tuitions, and praised the U-system as a “lean, mean, fighting machine”—which is kind of a strange description for an institution of higher learning, but right in line with the current Republican rhetoric, in which everything is some kind of war.

And finally, there was Denny Rehberg, currently Montana’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, who would, of course, climb the ladder of political success and, at the last minute, file for Burns’ seat—which would end the struggle of running for office every two years and give him a solid six years between races.

In the end, none of the speculators were right. Racicot kept his fat D.C. job, Mercer let the filing deadline quietly pass, and Rehberg simply decided to file for Representative again instead of wading into the Senatorial fray. Instead, when it came time to quit talking and start walking, it was Bob Keenan, the mercurial state senator from Bigfork, who tossed his hat into Burns’ ring, saying the Republicans had to have a viable candidate.

Despite ongoing declarations of innocence by Burns and his continuing support from the leaders of Montana’s Republican Party, those who have watched Keenan’s political career are unlikely to dismiss his candidacy as a prank. Keenan, for all his quirkiness, is energetic, affable and fully capable of running a statewide race. Moreover, he endeared himself to certain Republican sectors as a nonstop critic of Gov. Schweitzer throughout the last legislative session—and make no mistake, stopping the Schweitzer juggernaut is high on the Republicans’ to-do list.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are riding Schweitzer’s popularity—as well as his seemingly endless energy—for all it’s worth. And given the national attention Schweitzer has gotten for what has been dubbed “the Montana Miracle” of bringing Democrats to power in a “red” state, Schweitzer’s coattails are well worth riding. In fact, if Schweitzer plans to successfully implement his promised “New Day in Montana,” Democrat control of the Legislature would sure make things a lot easier in the last half of his first term. Democrats are united, energized and committed to delivering that control to Schweitzer.

Republicans, however, are equally committed to denying the governor legislative majorities—but they may have a tough job doing so, thanks to the emergence of a number of Constitution Party candidates. Traditional wisdom is that the Constitution Party pulls conservative votes from Republicans and may actually help Democrats win. Recalling the role Ralph Nader’s tiny percentage of votes played in Al Gore’s race against Bush, there is indeed a basis for third-party concern.

And then there is the Bush Factor. The tidal forces of national politics may be influenced by Bush’s cascading series of failures—from Iraq to Medicare to Katrina—and could well lead to a general rejection of Republican candidates across the board.

For now, however, all these horses are barely out of the gate. We’ve got eight months to watch Montana’s political ponies run—and they promise to be some of the most exciting races ever.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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