Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate.
LIVINGSTON — As Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Bohlinger will tell anyone who listens, he’s running his campaign on a shoestring.
“I like to say, jokingly, that we have enough money for a tank of gas and a Big Mac,” he says. “This is an underfunded campaign.”
Bohlinger, one of three men vying for the Democratic nomination to run for the U.S. Senate this fall in Montana, says the small campaign account won’t deter him from crisscrossing the state, talking up the “bold, progressive agenda” he’d pursue as U.S. senator.
“My campaign will be town-to-town, people-to-people, answering questions about where I stand on issues,” he tells a group of Democratic activists in Livingston earlier this month.
Bohlinger, however, is not the choice of Democratic Party leaders to run for the seat formerly held by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who announced last year he would not run for re-election.
In fact, Bohlinger says party insiders last year tried to talk him out of running, to clear the way for then-Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who since has been appointed to the seat and is running to retain it. Rancher Dirk Adams of Wilsall is the third Democrat competing for the seat.
Democratic voters will decide in the June 3 primary which man will carry the banner for the party this fall in Montana’s high-profile U.S. Senate race. U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is the likely Republican nominee.
Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Walsh to the Senate post on Feb. 7, after Baucus stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Walsh has raised $1.5 million in campaign funds since he became a candidate last October.
Bohlinger has collected a mere $28,400, and $15,000 of that is a loan from his own pocket.
With scant funds and the party leaders behind Walsh, Bohlinger has taken to the road to make his case directly to Democratic voters.
Often dressed in a business suit and his signature bow tie, the 78-year-old Bohlinger has spent 21 days on the road in April and says he’ll spend another 22 in May, traveling in a used Toyota Sequoia to public events from Kalispell to Miles City.
Those in attendance get to hear the Bohlinger agenda: More services for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, squeezing big money out of politics through campaign-finance reform, rewriting the tax code to close loopholes for the wealthy and encourage U.S. corporations to bring investment and jobs to America, increasing Social Security benefits and establishing a national-service incentive for young people.
Bohlinger also hopes to carry out this agenda in a single, six-year term, saying he won’t run for re-election if he wins this time.
“You can be a kick-ass, one-term member of the U.S. Senate,” he says. “You can rock the boat. You don’t have to be a back-bencher.”
Some would call Bohlinger a long shot, but he says he’s confident his reputation and name recognition can make him competitive.
For Bohlinger, the Senate run is the extension of a 20-year career in Montana politics, most of it spent as a Republican, from Billings.
Bohlinger, who owned and ran a women’s clothing store for 30 years in Billings, was a Republican state representative from 1993-1998 and a Republican state senator from 1999-2004, when Schweitzer tapped him to be his running mate, for lieutenant governor.
He says Schweitzer liked his record as a progressive Republican, who preached good fiscal management but support of government programs that helped the poor and the vulnerable. Bohlinger spent eight years as lieutenant governor under Schweitzer, running under the Democratic banner but still calling himself a Republican.
Now, Bohlinger says it’s important for Democrats to maintain a majority in the U.S. Senate, and that he’s the guy who can beat Daines in the fall.
He notes that he’s run before against Daines and beaten him, as Schweitzer’s running mate in 2008, when Daines was the running mate of unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown.
“I look forward to the opportunity to debate Congressman Daines because I think he is so wrong on so many issues,” he says.
Opposing camps within the party question Bohlinger’s Democratic credentials, noting that he voted for anti-abortion and sales-tax bills while in the Legislature.
Bohlinger says he argued for a sales tax a dozen years ago because more revenue was needed for vital programs. On abortion, he says the important question is whether, as a U.S. senator, he’d vote to confirm a U.S. Supreme Court justice who opposes a woman’s right to an abortion.
“I would not,” he said adamantly to a Livingston reporter. The decision on abortion “is between (a woman) and God. He’ll speak to her about the right thing to do. That’s not the Legislature’s job to decide.”
Out on the campaign trail, the Democratic faithful don’t seem to be questioning Bohlinger’s credentials. They want to know how he stands on the issues of the day, and what he’d do in the Senate.
“I like you; I want to fight for you,” says Marine Corps veteran Tim Cunningham in Livingston. “But I need meat and potatoes. Give the ammo; I’ll take it to ‘em. I want to know who you are and what you stand for, and I’ll fight for you.”