RIGHT HOOKS, LEFT JABS
2000-2009: SHIFTING POLITICS

GOP, Dems battle to lead Montana

2009-12-31T00:15:00Z GOP, Dems battle to lead MontanaCHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
December 31, 2009 12:15 am  • 

HELENA — Montana politics have switched dramatically over the decade — at least in the top offices.

Borrowing the color analogy used by some analysts, Montana has changed over the 2000s from mostly Republican red to mostly Democratic blue for the top four political elected offices — two U.S. senators, one representative and the governor.

Yet if you look at Montana’s entire political spectrum, the state really appears more purple — a combination of blue and red — than anything else.

“There are ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. “Philosophically, Montana is still right of center, but sometimes circumstances create a situation where one party looks dominant over the other, but it’s not necessarily the philosophy of the people of Montana.”

At the start of the decade in 2000, Republicans controlled three of the state’s four top political offices with U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, U.S. Rep. Rick Hill and Gov. Marc Racicot; Sen. Max Baucus was the lone Democrat. Today, Democrats hold three of the four offices.

Brian Schweitzer captured the governorship in 2004, becoming the first Democrat elected as chief executive here since Ted Schwinden in 1984. Schweitzer was re-elected by a landslide.

In 2006, Democratic state Sen. Jon Tester unseated Burns, a three-term senator, by a whisker, while Baucus has easily won re-election.

Rehberg is now the lone Republican among Montana’s top four officials.

In presidential elections, Montanans remained in the Republican column by voting for George W. Bush decisively in 2000 and 2004 and narrowly favoring John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008.

In the other statewide posts, Democrats controlled the posts of attorney general, auditor and school superintendent throughout the entire decade, while Republicans held the secretary of state’s post for most of the decade.

As for the state Legislature, Republicans won majorities in the House in three of the five regular sessions in the decade while the chamber twice was deadlocked with Democrats. In the Senate, Republicans were in control three times and Democrats twice.

“The Republicans started out the decade stronger than they ended it,” said Craig Wilson, a political-science professor at Montana State University Billings. “As the decade progressed, the Democrats did better.”

Here’s a look at some major political developments in the decade:

• Rehberg is elected to U.S. House in 2000 and every two years since.

In a battle between a pair of political veterans, Rehberg, a former lieutenant governor, beat Nancy Keenan, a three-term superintendent of public instruction, to win the state’s lone seat in Congress. Rehberg has coasted to easy victories ever since.

In his first year in office, Rehberg said the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.

“It sucked the air out of every issue for a period of time,” he said. “I thought I was going to be on the Aviation Subcommittee on the Transportation Committee. I thought it would be about trying to get America West to move to Montana. Next all we had to do was air security and the Transportation Security Administration.”

• Judy Martz is elected governor in 2000.

The Butte Republican became the Montana’s first female governor. She defeated Democrat Mark O’Keefe, despite being outspent in the campaign by 3-to-1.

A former Olympic speed skater, Martz was tapped by Racicot as his running mate in 1996 race.

Martz struggled as governor, making controversial statements and seeing a top aide convicted of negligent homicide in a drunken-driving crash that left the Senate majority leader dead.

She faced tough fiscal times from the national recession after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was forced to recommend budget rollbacks and cuts in 2002 and 2003.

However, Martz was able to accomplish one of her top campaign goals. The 2003 Legislature adopted her proposal to lower the individual income tax rates for higher-income Montanans and reducing taxes on capital gains.

She didn’t seek re-election in 2004.

• Schweitzer is elected governor in 2004.

After narrowly losing to Burns for the Senate in 2000, Schweitzer never stopped running. Four years later, he was elected governor, defeating Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown.

“Schweitzer came in and with his personality and relative charisma, he made a difference, and the Democrats clawed back,” Wilson said.

Jim Lopach, a political-science professor at the University of Montana, said Schweitzer has succeeded by capturing the broad, common-sense middle of Montana politically. Picking a Republican state senator, John Bohlinger of Billings, as his running mate, helped reinforce that image, he said.

He added, “I think Schweitzer has captured the middle of the road, kind of like Schwinden (by saying): ‘Damn right we need jobs, but we also must protect the environment. We need revenue but will spend frugally.’ ”

Schweitzer has provided strong leadership from the executive branch, Lopach said.

“Like him or not, he rankles people,” Lopach said of Schweitzer. “He’s got a very strong personality. He can be overbearing at times. Regardless, he has provided very strong executive leadership and he’s given definition as to where the state is headed.”

Schweitzer is not afraid to boast about his record.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that we’re the best fiscal managers in a generation, that we’ve attracted companies to come to Montana to invest in Montana, we’re growing our energy portfolio at the fastest rate in the history of the state,” he said. “... We’ve continued to invest in education and health care. I think it’s a great record. The Republicans didn’t support us on virtually any one of the initiatives I’ve just described.”

In response, Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, said Schweitzer has done a good job convincing Montanans that he has done a lot of these things — regardless of whether he really has.

“He took credit for the largest wind farm in the state (at Judith Gap), and they were pouring the cement before he was governor,” Story said. “He was fortunate to walk into a $1 billion budget surplus when he became governor and has spent most of it growing government.”

In 2008, Schweitzer easily won a second term, topping Republican Sen. Roy Brown of Billings.

• Tester’s defeat of Burns for the Senate in 2006.

Burns was only the second Republican elected to the U.S. Senate by Montana voters and the first ever to be re-elected.

By 2006, Burns was a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and steered more than $2 billion in federal money to Montana for university research, hospitals, water projects and other needs.

Tester, an organic farmer from Big Sandy and state Senate president, attacked Burns on the ethics issue. Burns took nearly $200,000 in campaign donations from disgraced lobbyist and later convicted felon Jack Abramoff, his associates and his clients, more than any other member of Congress. He later returned the money.

Burns insisted he did nothing illegal. National newspapers reported during the campaign that Burns was under U.S. Justice Department investigation. After his defeat, the Justice Department told Burns the next year he was not under investigation.

Burns, in turn, charged that Tester would vote to increase taxes if elected to the U.S. Senate.

“My opponent has never seen a tax increase he didn’t vote for,” Burns said. “He voted to raise fees on everything from Coca-Cola to fishing licenses.”

It was bitter race that drew national attention. Tester won by 3,562 votes.

“Overall, I think Montanans were hungry for change in ’06,” said Tester, who also has secured an appointment to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I think they wanted more accountability and less of the special interests. We’ve done our best to bring more transparency, everything from putting our schedule online, bills online and an ethics audit.”

Political scientists Lopach and Wilson said Burns was tainted by the Abramoff scandal, even though he was never charged with anything.

Lopach cited a classic political-science book that says successful democratic politicians must spring from the people.

“I don’t think we could have had a more indigenous politician than Tester,” Lopach said.

• The Legislature becomes more narrowly divided and, at times, contentious.

Republicans started out the decade with majorities in both chambers in 2001 and 2003, but Democrats narrowed the margins. In 2005, Democrats won control of the Senate. They retained it in 2007 after Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow, hired by the Schweitzer administration for a state job in the summer of 2006, switched parties to give Democrats a 26-24 edge.

The House was deadlocked in 2005 and 2009, while Republicans held a 50-49 edge in 2007 with one Constitution Party member who usually voted with the GOP.

Term limits first affected the Legislature in 2001, when many veteran lawmakers were prevented from running again.

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, said the level of civility declined in the House early in the decade and “Democrats had been used to being ignored.” Even though Wanzenried said he still is concerned by the lack of civility at times, the Legislature as an institution “has kind of found its balance to deal with issues like K-12 funding and the budget.”

The 2007 session was marked by hostilities between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate. Lawmakers were unable to pass a state budget by the final day and blamed each other. Schweitzer was forced to call them back for a special session.

Story said he’s not certain that the Legislature accomplished as much this decade as it has in past decades, but he pointed to the passage of some important laws. They included the reducing the income tax on capital gains, creating a state public-defender program and the state assumption of welfare, secondary roads and some other responsibilities from local governments.

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