Red dawn 

Voters send clear message with midterm elections

If you go to the Montana Secretary of State's website to view the election results, you'll find Democrats portrayed in blue and Republicans in red on the graphs that show what percentage of the votes the candidates received. On Wednesday morning, when most of the vote counting was done, the red bars far outpaced the blue. And Montana wasn't alone. Republicans romped to victory across the nation and for Democrats like President Barack Obama and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, it was a red dawn indeed.

In what was described as a "blood bath" by one astute political watcher, most of the races where Ds faced Rs were simply no contest. The Republicans on the national scene ripped away control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats with the largest gain of seats for that party in 70 years. Suddenly, the shining star of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold the position, was snuffed out like a candle flame pinched between wet fingertips. Replacing her in that critical leadership position will be John Boehner, who called the electoral outcome "a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people."

While Democrats hung on to the U.S. Senate, the strength of their former 60-vote majority is but a fading dream. For a nation grown tired of political gridlock caused by the Senate's archaic rules of filibuster, the future holds even more of the same—especially when paired with the Republican-ruled House that rode to power opposing the Obama agenda. The only finger they'll be lifting toward the White House will be the middle one, rendering Obama's pledge of "hope and change" a hollowed-out wreck, adrift in stormy seas and taking on water. The president got change all right; it just wasn't the change he was hoping for.

Closer to home, the tidal wave of red significantly changed the outlook for Montana. For the first time in a decade, the Republicans will now hold the majority on the Public Service Commission (PSC). Democratic incumbent Ken Toole, a former state senator and longtime advocate for alternative energy and consumer protection, got thumped by political newcomer Bill Gallagher. Meanwhile, up on the Hi-Line, another political newcomer, Travis Kavulla, whopped Democrat Don Ryan, a termed-out state senator who hoped his political future would lead to the PSC. But that was not to be. Now, if the predictions turn out to be accurate, Brad Molnar, the quirky and cantankerous thorn in the side of the PSC Dems for years, will likely chair the body that, at least in theory, is supposed to protect Montanans from predation by those who provide their utilities. It's safe to assume the answer to future energy development will no longer be blowing in the wind.

Speaking of blowing wind, Gov. Schweitzer's last two years in office just got a lot tougher with Republican domination of both houses of the Montana Legislature. It's no secret that Schweitzer's relations with the Legislature have been stormy from the start, even when his own party controlled either the Senate or House. Given the governor's penchant for insulting legislators and his recent escalation of suing the Legislature, one might expect a little payback is on the way. And what might that be? Well, watch the $44 million in riverbed rent owed by PPL that Schweitzer was planning to spend acquiring former Plum Creek lands. The Legislature, including Democrat members, was never very excited about Schweitzer's attempt to appropriate vast sums of state money without legislative approval. With the U.S. Supreme Court forestalling the decision on PPL's appeal until the federal government weighs in on the issue, those millions won't likely be available for expenditure until well after the Legislature convenes in January, if then.

What may also happen, which is nothing to particularly crow about, is the Republicans taking the reins on Schweitzer's energy development bandwagon. Given the governor's over-the-top push for all forms of energy development in the state, he'll have a hard time stopping Republicans from showing him how it's done. Watch for further rollbacks on environmental regulation, further tax breaks for oil, gas and coal development, and the return of that old devil, "fast tracking" of energy development permits.

Montana's race for Congress turned out exactly as many had predicted, with Republican Denny Rehberg effortlessly defeating challenger Dennis McDonald. In fact, calling it a "challenge" is an overstatement. McDonald's campaign never had traction, never inspired voters and never stood a chance in ousting Rehberg's incumbency. In his last desperate campaign ploy, McDonald saddled up his horse and told Montanans he was "riding for the brand." What actually happened is he rode off into what is likely his political sunset.

But despite the sea of red that swept the state and nation, we have some things for which to be thankful. Beth Baker, a Helena attorney and candidate for the Supreme Court, won her race over Livingston District Judge Nels Swandal. While the race for the Supreme Court is supposed to be non-partisan, Swandal relied heavily on Republicans for support while Baker drew endorsements from both sides of the aisle. In the end, it was likely that mixture that brought her to victory and a seat on our state's highest court. In the future, Baker's level-headed, non-political approach to the court will likely serve Montanans well.

The race for 1st Judicial District Court in Helena is another beam of light in an otherwise dark hour for progressive candidates. Although, like Baker's race, judicial campaigns are non-partisan, Montanans are lucky to have Jim Reynolds on the bench—especially in this district, before which virtually all challenges to state government are brought. Reynolds brings a strong background of public advocacy, environmental protection and open government to the seat, all of which are likely to be challenged in the near future.

And so it ends. And so it begins. The old saying "red in the morning, sailors take warning" couldn't be more apt.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

Editor's note: This story was corrected on Friday, Nov. 5, regarding the last time Republicans held a majority on the PSC.
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