BUTTE — Congressional candidate John Lewis had some frank words for fellow Montana Democrats at this weekend’s party convention, saying they have a steep hill to climb if they hope to succeed in November elections.
“This going to be a tough election; let’s be honest,” he said Friday night. “John Walsh and I … We’re not well-known. It’s going to take a lot of work to change that.”
Lewis, the Democratic nominee for Montana’s open U.S. House seat, then brought the partisan crowd to its feet with standard convention rhetoric, saying Democrats will outwork their Republican counterparts and win.
But in private conversations at the weekend platform convention, Democrats of all stripes acknowledged that what Lewis said out loud Friday night is true: Montana Democrats face a precarious political landscape in 2014.
President Barack Obama is unpopular in Montana, and Republicans hope to exploit that fact, tying him to Democrats running for Congress and the Legislature. A non-presidential election year also means lower voter turnout, hurting Democrats, as it did in 2010, when they lost 18 seats in the Montana House.
Democrats lack a well-known, charismatic candidate at the top of the ticket. Republicans, however, have U.S. Senate candidate Steve Daines, a better-known name who has shown he can raise big money, and who’s been shown by most polls to have a double-digit lead over Democratic Sen. John Walsh as the general-election campaign begins.
It all adds up to what some consider a daunting road ahead for Democrats this election year in Montana — but party officials, supporters and candidates say it’s far from over.
“I think it’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s undoable,” said Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, the state’s largest labor union. “I think this election has just begun.”
Feaver and others said Lewis and Walsh need to come out swinging, punching hard against Daines and Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke, telling voters forcefully how the parties’ respective candidates differ on issues like abortion, health care, education, public lands and the role of government.
If hard-hitting attacks can soften up the GOP opposition, funders of outside-money groups will see that the races may be close, and start stepping in to provide some needed help, Democratic officials said.
Gov. Steve Bullock, in a rousing speech to convention-goers Saturday morning, said Democrats need to hammer away on how they’re the party that supports a woman’s right to consider an abortion, investment in public education, same-sex marriage, more sunlight on political spending, easier access to voting, and expansion of health care.
“Elections are won by making sure that every Montanans knows the values that we stand and fight for,” he said. “Elections are won by having superior candidates, which we have. Elections are won by having the values that align with the values of Montanans, which we have.”
As for the unpopularity of Obama, Democrats here said they’re not terribly worried, because it’s a tactic that Republicans employed in 2012, to mixed results.
They also note how Montana Republicans have their own problems, with a divided party sometimes fighting amongst itself and a reputation of being the party that wants to say “no” to everything instead of work on solutions to real problems.
“They’re even running on that dysfunction,” said Nancy Keenan, a former congressional candidate and state superintendent of schools who’s assisting some Democratic campaigns. “The other side is anti-everything, anti-solution, anti-working together. …
“I’m not all that concerned,” she continued. “I think we’re much smarter (this time) about the importance of getting out the vote in a mid-term election. … We’re running on all cylinders here. I have a real sense of energy when I’m with Democrats.”