Who'll stop the pain? 

Republicans look for a leader in Helena. John S. Adams handicaps the field.

God was in the house at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel in Helena last week. So were former Sen. Conrad Burns, Ronald Reagan and lots of tins of Copenhagen as about 350 dyed-in-the-wool Republicans descended on the Queen City of the Rockies June 21–23 for the 2007 Montana GOP Officers Convention.

Wonks, pundits and bloggers from around the state billed the event as an attempt by Republicans to “heal the rift” that formed in the party after a bitterly contentious 2007 legislative session, from which Republicans walked away with almost none of their major policy proposals intact.

“We got beat. No one likes to say it that way, but that’s what happened. Republicans lost,” Sen. Minority Leader Cory Stapleton acknowledged on the convention’s last day.

But if the Republicans got beat in the 2007 Legislature, the loss may have done more to unify than divide them. Nearly every mealtime speaker invoked the 2006 midterm drubbing that saw Democrats make gains in nearly legislative body in the country (except Montana), pick up six governorships, and win back both houses of Congress.

“We got pummeled,” said one Republican operative. And with every invocation of past losses came rallying cries for 2008. Sports and war analogies of defeat and redemption were exchanged like trading cards in the hallways. Republicans who were scorned at the end of the session strode confidently through the banquet hall, shaking hands with colleagues and delegates and exchanging belly laughs at the expense of Democrats, mostly the state’s top dog, Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

When you cram 350 people into a room, there are going to be some differences. But if there’s one thing all attendees of the 2007 Montana GOP Convention could agree upon, it’s their distaste for Schweitzer and his coterie of “liberal Democrats” in Helena. That distaste was tempered, however, by that fact that most Republicans at the convention seem resigned to the idea that they’re not going to unseat their archrival in 2008.

That’s the perplexing challenge facing the state’s Grand Old Party in the wake of Conrad Burns’ 2006 defeat, the party’s biggest single loss in decades. But like a good stinky cheese, a Republican resurgence will take time to develop. The party may not regain control of the Governor’s Mansion or prove much threat to Max Baucus’ U.S. Senate seat in this election cycle, but party leaders and GOP faithful did hope to plant the seeds of some future victory.

Let’s meet the seeds.

The Futurist
As the newly elected chair of the Montana GOP, Erik Iverson is fixated on regaining a Republican majority in the state Legislature. Republican legislators seemed doomed nationwide in 2006 thanks to abysmal leadership in the White House and Congress that loomed like a thunderhead over the midterm elections. Even so, the Montana GOP managed to make gains in the state, but it wasn’t quite enough. They reduced the Democrats’ 27–23 majority in the Senate to 26–24 (they would have had a split if Glasgow’s Sam Kitzenberg hadn’t changed parties after the election), and took control of the House 50–49–1 (Constitution Party member Rick Jore defeated the incumbent Democrat in House District 12) breaking the House’s 50-50 split of 2005.

But Gov. Schweitzer and Senate Democrats managed to beat back the Republicans and end the 2007 session with most of their agenda rammed through, while Republicans were relegated to fighting each other and sent home to lick their wounds.

That session came on the heels of the defeat of Burns, the state party’s highest-ranking elected official. Burns, a three-term Republican stalwart, was the longtime patriarch of the Montana GOP. His loss diminished party leadership to only two statewide officeholders: Secretary of State Brad Johnson and U.S. Congressman Denny Rehberg.

Iverson knows that if Republicans are going to turn the disappointments of 2006 and 2007 around and make gains in 2008, they’re going to have to start in the Legislature.

“We have to rebuild the party from the ground up,” Iverson said during a cocktail party in his honor. “My No. 1 priority is gaining back control of the Montana Senate, and expanding our majority in the Montana House. If we do a good job of that, the governor and Senate races will take care of themselves.”

Though only 33 years old, Iverson is no political greenhorn. After graduating from law school in Oregon, he immediately went to work for then-Montana Congressman Rick Hill in Washington, D.C. When Hill announced he would not seek a third term in 2000 due to health issues, Iverson went to South Dakota to work for then-Congressman John Thune. (Thune went on to beat Sen. Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, but more on that later.) In 2001 Denny Rehberg was elected to Hill’s seat in Congress, and Iverson went to work for Rehberg as legislative director. Then, in 2002, Iverson took over as Rehberg’s chief of staff, a position he still holds.

Last year Iverson took a seven-week leave of absence from Rehberg’s office to try to help turn Conrad Burns’ struggling campaign around. Though Burns ultimately—if narrowly—lost to Democrat Jon Tester, many Republicans credit Iverson with closing the incumbent’s double-digit deficit in the final weeks of the race.

Now Iverson plans to take what he’s learned working for Rehberg, Burns, Thune and Hill and implement a carefully scripted strategy to regain control of the Legislature one district at a time. Though he didn’t say it in so many words, Iverson—and most everyone else at the convention—seems to understand that beating Schweitzer and/or Baucus in 2008 is going to be an almost insurmountable challenge. So instead of focusing resources on leading sheep to slaughter in 2008, Iverson has set his sights on key battleground legislative districts in hopes of shoring up the grassroots and building momentum from the ground up.

“We might not win either of them, we may win one of them, we may win both of them, but if we’ve got good legislative candidates that have good messages and they’re getting people in their community to vote Republican, that’s going to trickle up,” Iverson said, acknowledging that in the past Montana Republicans have tended to “put all of their eggs in one basket.”

“You know, it used to be, ‘let’s get Conrad re-elected…and let’s hope it filters down.’ I want to do it the opposite way. I want to do it from the ground up and have it lift our party.”

Iverson’s election to the Montana GOP chairmanship was practically pre-ordained. Some party officials hinted there might be an eleventh-hour challenge to his nomination (no names were ever floated), but once the voting began it became clear the party was wholeheartedly behind the young, energetic and very political Iverson. And while Iverson talked about “changing the tone” in Helena, where politics is “too polarized” and “shouldn’t be personal,” he repeatedly riled the room by invoking Brian Schweitzer by the governor’s initials: “B.S.”

“Democrats had their chance. They did not lead. We will,” was Iverson’s refrain throughout his acceptance speech, by the end of which the 200 or so Republican delegates and party members packed into the voting hall were practically singing it along with him.

The Groveler
Many observers expected a campaign announcement from Mr. “Profanity-Laced Tirade” himself at the Montana GOP convention, but former House Majority Leader Mike Lange had other convention business to attend to.

Lange, who plans to officially announce his candidacy for Max Baucus’ U.S. Senate seat on June 29, typifies the so-called rift in the GOP. A blue-collar pipe fitter from Billings, Lange was riding high on the hog just a few short months ago, but has had to spend the last month performing acts of contrition with members of his own party.

A stocky, mustachioed bulldog of a politician, Lange has made no secret of the fact that he wants to take on a top-tier Democrat, and many observers say his colleagues elected him as House majority leader to help lay the groundwork for a candidacy and build name recognition. The 2007 legislative session was to be his proving ground: He would do battle with Schweitzer and establish his mettle as a potential candidate for the Senate or governor; his “six-pack” of budget bills would undermine the governor’s own budget proposal and throw a wrench in the Democratic agenda, thus demonstrating his political savvy.

But it didn’t turn out that way, and Lange’s leadership was ultimately characterized by the P.L.T., in which he referred to the governor as an “S.O.B.” and said Schweitzer could take his budget compromise proposal and “stick it up [his] ass.”

It was an embarrassing spectacle for the Montana GOP, if only because there was a camera in the room and the tirade ended up on YouTube, making national news and giving the state party a black eye. Lange was rewarded for his tantrum at the end of the special session when his own caucus ousted him as majority leader, sending his political fortunes crashing. Maybe his colleagues were upset because they’d had him pegged as their candidate, and were then forced to watch as his chances (and theirs) went up in smoke with the P.L.T. Funny thing is, most Republicans at the convention seemed to agree with Lange in substance if not in style. That may be why Lange is confident he can regain their support for a 2008 run at a higher office.

“Absolutely,” he said of his party’s support for his candidacy after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s breakfast speech on Friday.

Lange didn’t announce his candidacy at the convention because, he said, the event needed to be about the party, not any one individual.

“It was very important to focus in on key messages that the party is going to bring forth,” Lange said.

Publicly, Iverson and others said they believed Lange could get back on track with the party and make a serious run at Schweitzer or Baucus.

“It depends on how he handles the mending,” said Iverson. “I know he’s been spending a lot of time on the phone. He’s got an op-ed out where he’s showing some contrition about the whole matter. He has to demonstrate to Republicans, ‘I’ve made some mistakes, you’ve made some mistakes, let’s move past that.’ He’s beginning to do that, but it remains to be seen whether he can get enough support to win a primary. Or if he’s the only one in that race.”

But other Republicans privately said they weren’t so sure Lange has what it takes to raise the money or the support required to oust either of the state’s top Democrats. And there was little evidence at the convention that the Montana GOP was ready to fall in line behind him—not after the P.L.T. and his last-minute negotiations with Schweitzer prior to the special session, a move many Republicans viewed as a betrayal.

“Quite frankly, I think it’s laughable,” one Republican said of Lange’s hope of earning his party’s nomination. “I don’t think anyone in the party thinks Lange can get elected dog catcher, much less to the U.S. Senate.”

Others said they’d support him…but grudgingly.

“If he’s my only choice, I’ll vote for him,” said one.

The Challenger
Gallatin County businessman Steve Daines is slippery about the buzz over his possible candidacy for governor. Daines, the vice president of Bozeman-based Right Now Technologies, was unknown in political circles until he launched GiveItBack.com in April as part of a campaign to urge Schweitzer and the Legislature to refund a chunk of the $1 billion state surplus in the form of $1,000 checks for every Montana taxpayer.

The campaign (the materials for which have Daines’ face and name literally all over them) immediately caught the attention of candidate-starved Republicans, some of whom see serious potential in Daines as a challenger to Schweitzer.

But Daines, a tall thin man with a conservative haircut, a gray suit and polished cowboy boots (no sign of Copenhagen), was frustratingly non-committal about whether he will take a run at Schweitzer. However, he and his wife Cindy did offer more than a few nonverbal clues to their possible political future at the convention, Daines’ first since serving as a delegate in 1984.

Steve and Cindy Daines were ubiquitous at the event. Their GiveItBack.com booth was displayed prominently in the hotel lobby, they hosted an ice cream social on Friday, and they spent much of their time chumming up to prominent Republicans like Burns, Colorado GOP chairman and legendary political strategist Dick Wadhams, and Secretary of State Brad Johnson over dinner and lunch. The Daineses were also “platinum sponsors” of the Friday night banquet dinner, which earned them a prominent call-out at dinner and a rousing round of applause from feasters.

But is he going to run?

“I’m going to keep campaigning on behalf of the taxpayers of this great state,” Daines said in perfectly noncommittal politico-speak.

Does that mean he’s considering a run?

“I’ve got the best job in Montana. I actually get to create jobs in the state rather than just talk about it. We’ve grown a business that now has 350 employees in Bozeman…”

What about Schweitzer?

“I think we need to go back to leadership that’s based on statesmanship instead of showmanship…”

While Daines intrigued many Republicans at the convention, only a handful seemed to think he had a serious chance of beating Schweitzer if he did decide to step into the race.

“He’s an outsider, which can be good, but then again nobody knows who he is,” said one Republican. “Plus, I don’t have any idea if he has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with Schweitzer.”

Daines also has another black mark on his yet-to-be-confirmed campaign: at least a handful of Republicans told me they’ve had their fill of “Gallatin Valley whack-jobs,” referring to ultraconservative House Speaker Scott Sales and Rep. John Sinrud, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, both of Bozeman.

Still, given his prominent profile among fellow Republicans last week, it would be surprising if Daines doesn’t have a future in Montana politics. Whether he’s willing to squander (or build upon) that future with a long-shot race for the Governor’s mansion is a question Daines and others simply aren’t ready to answer yet.

The Strategist
There’s the laughable jock analogy “The John Elway of Colorado politics,” and the more appropriate geek analogy “Rove 2.0.” Either way, if you’re a Democrat in the Rocky Mountain West, you should be very wary of Dick Wadhams, who might most aptly be called “The “Democrat Killer.”

Wadhams, the keynote speaker at Friday night’s banquet, has been anointed the “heir apparent to Karl Rove” by national media, and for good reason. It was Wadhams who orchestrated the campaign that successfully removed Congressional Republicans’ longtime Democratic nemesis from South Dakota: former Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Montanans might remember Wadhams from his stint as press secretary in Conrad Burns’ successful re-election bid in 2000, wherein the vulnerable and damaged Burns (he nearly sank his campaign that year after calling Arabs “ragheads”) eked out a victory over the Democratic then-newcomer, Brian Schweitzer.

(“Didn’t it feel good to beat Brian Schweitzer?” Wadhams goaded the crowd during his speech.)

Wadhams has lost only two of the nine statewide campaigns he’s worked on, the most recent being Virginia Sen. George Allen’s failed re-election bid (a campaign that tanked after Allen referred to an opposition operative as “macaca”).

But it was the John Thune race in South Dakota that caught the attention of Republican operatives across the nation and earned Wadham’s reputation as a giant-slayer.

Early in the 2004 election Wadhams hired political operatives to act as independent bloggers (according to one report, two of those bloggers earned a combined $35,000, but never disclosed their ties to the campaign). The bloggers relentlessly attacked reporters and their editors at the state’s largest and most influential newspaper, the Argus Leader, manufacturing claims that the paper was biased toward Daschle. The attacks were successful, and the paper’s editors were seen by some media critics as overcompensating for the criticism of editorial bias, thus turning out more hostile coverage of Daschle. In the end, Thune squeaked out a narrow victory.

Nowadays, Wadhams dismisses his own role in the Thune victory and gives most of the credit to the candidate.

“Honestly, I really do believe you have to have a really great candidate who runs on principles and can articulate those principles on why you want to be governor or senator,” Wadhams said after his speech to the Montana GOP. “You have to prove why you’re better than the other guy. That is part of politics, it’s part of campaigns.”

It’s also why Wadhams is unapologetic about running nasty and negative races.

“There’s nothing wrong with going negative,” he once argued, as reported in a profile on Slate.com. “Staying positive is a disservice to the voters, because differences between the candidates are never revealed.”

Wadhams, a longtime friend of George W. Bush political architect Karl Rove laughs at the nickname “Rove 2.0.”

“There’s only one Karl Rove, and he’s the best,” Wadhams says.

Wadhams had Montana Republicans practically foaming at the mouth with his rallying keynote speech on Friday night. He reminded them that there’s a lesson to be taken from the 2004 Daschle race, a race in which John Thune was considered a dim-bulb underdog from day one. Thune had barely lost in a Senate race just two years earlier to a Democrat, and he followed up by running against Daschle, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country with Wadham’s help.

“[Thune] had the greatest victory in Senate election history in 50 years by upsetting and defeating Tom Daschle and changing the culture of the Senate for the next two years. That is what Montana Republicans…need to do,” Wadham implored the crowd. “We have to get up off the mat, we have to get back in this game and we have to start winning elections again!”

The Has-been
Conrad Burns proved to the Friday night crowd that he still has the skills to pay the bills as he took to the stage following Wadham’s rousing keynote address and did what he knows how to do best: raise money.

The one-time auctioneer was the guest…and auctioneer…at an after-dinner fundraiser for the party. A humidor filled with cigars went to Erik Iverson for the hefty sum of $800. An American flag that once flew over the Capitol sold for $700.

As Burns rattled off auctioneering witticisms with a verbal skill long lacking on his campaign trail, one Republican remarked: “Conrad looks as comfortable as I’ve seen him in a long time.”

It was true, Conrad did seem comfortable. After all, now that he’s been ousted from the Senate, it seems unlikely that a congressional probe or special prosecutor will indict him for his dealings with convicted fraudster and super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

When prodded, Burns refused to comment on who he thought should step up to run against his old foe Schweitzer, or his longtime colleague in the Senate, Max Baucus.

“Well, I like them all,” he said of potential Republican candidates. “I’m going to let this party select. That’s who’s got to carry the ball now.”

There was a strong sense of admiration and respect for Burns despite his disappointing loss last fall. And unlike President George W. Bush, Burns’ term and tenure was invoked often at the convention, and the Montana GOP unfailingly responded with sincere applause.

Wadhams spent a good chunk of his 16-minute speech honoring the GOP patriarch, at one point weirdly comparing Conrad Burns to Winston Churchill. The connection? Churchill, as almost no one remembers, was defeated for re-election following Word War II.

“What Senator Burns will be remembered for is bringing technology to rural Montana and rural America…for what he did in representing people who make their living working off the land…” Wadhams proclaimed. “And I would tell you that is what he will be remembered for for generations, long after we’re all gone.”

For Burns, who left power with little fanfare following his defeat last fall—and promptly took a job as an adviser and strategist at a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm founded by his former chief of staff, Leo Giacometto—this convention was as much going-away party as anything else. He came, he shook hands, he had fun. The Montana GOP, with a 24-year-old executive director and a 33-year-old chairman at the wheel, is steering the party into future. And while Montana Republicans may remember Burns fondly, he’s already in their rearview mirror.

The Hopeful
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s appearance at the convention highlighted the paradox facing the Montana GOP. Can the party of conservatism and supposed steadfastness really embrace a flip-flopping former governor, from Massachusetts no less, even if he does talk and act and even look a little like Ronald Reagan? Given the current field of candidates, maybe. But not everyone is sure that’s a winning strategy.

Delegates and attendees donned “Romney ’08” stickers for the handsome candidate’s appearance, and he won 50 percent of the vote in a straw poll hosted by the College Republicans, but there was no clear indication as to whether conservative Montana voters would be willing to back a guy who was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it, was for a woman’s right to choose before he was against it, and was for same-sex marriage before he was against it.

And yet the Montana GOP devoured the populist conservatism he delivered from the stump and washed it down with steak and eggs. Romney talked at length about the Republican Party’s core values: strong military, strong economy and strong family. He quoted Reagan on multiple occasions, to wild cheers from the crowd. And afterward, delegates buzzed over the excitement of having an honest-to-goodness presidential candidate in their midst.

“I wasn’t even considering him before, but I was really impressed,” said delegate James Drew of Cascade County. Drew said he related to what Romney had to say about GOP values.

“We may be a party that has some liberal members and some really ultraconservative members, but on balance we’re still a conservative party,” Drew said. “Our core beliefs and values are very closely aligned with the values that Romney mentioned.”

But Romney may have inadvertently created an insurmountable hurdle in Montana.

Last year Gov. Brian Schweitzer told a reporter he was impressed with Romney, and would consider voting for him if he ran for president. Romney exacerbated that sore spot with Montana’s GOP faithful on Friday when he had this to say about Schweitzer: “If any of you see your governor, give him my best,” he told a room full of reporters as he exited a post-breakfast news conference. “He’s a great guy.”

For Montana Republicans like James Drew, that statement could be deal-breaker.

“He said that?” Drew asked, shocked. “Well, he just lost my vote.”

The End
Montana’s Grand Old Party may be on the rocks, but if one thing was evident by the end of their convention, it’s that members aren’t wallowing in defeatism. But as the party faithful move toward repairing “The Rift,” they still seem to be lacking a motivating force other than hatred for Brian Schweitzer.

Still, convention-goers were realistic about their hopes for returning to power in the coming election cycle, and few seem to truly believe Schweitzer or Max Baucus are really beatable. With that in mind, the Montana GOP has set its sights on taking back the state Legislature, a goal that entails picking up only a pair of seats in the Senate.

The bigger question is leadership, and Montana Republicans currently lack it. Denny Rehberg, who didn’t make an appearance at the convention until the last meal of the event, was wooden and predictable—not exactly a general inspiring the troops (though not for lack of trying).

Chris Wilcox, the 24-year-old executive director of the Montana GOP (the youngest party director in the nation, he says), told me he cast a wide net to see who might come try to rally Montana Republicans. What he got was a flip-flopping presidential candidate from the East Coast who happens to be a buddy of their worst enemy.

State Republicans, like their national counterparts, are searching for a leader. George W. Bush—as evidenced by his near-universal shunning on the campaign trail—isn’t going to hack it. Burns is gone. Rehberg is all hat and minimal charisma.

The paradox facing Republicans is that they want a leader, and yet they know that whomever they chose as champion faces the likelihood of losing badly in 2008—and leaving the party not just down but out.

Republicans have been here before. They know rebuilding takes time. If the seeds planted at this convention are going to bear fruit, Republicans are going to have to be patient in pruning their political tree over the next decade. That may mean running Lange against Baucus and trimming the party of a troublesome limb in 2008. Or pitting Daines against Schweitzer in the hope that the Bozeman businessman, even if he loses, can run a competitive race and build momentum to carry Republicans forward, like Schweitzer did for Democrats in his run against Burns in 2000.

The Helena convention hall was filled with a party enthusiasm that was lacking in the wake of Burns’ defeat, and seemed gone for good after the earthquake that was the 2007 legislative session. But even the most optimistic Republicans know that translating enthusiasm into victories is only going to be possible with the right candidates and enough money. The 2007 convention came to a close with the jury still very much out on those two points.
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