HELENA — Montana Democrats, who haven’t captured a majority in both houses of the Legislature in more than two decades, have stepped up their legislative campaign efforts and started earlier to prepare for the 2014 elections.
For the first time in the party’s history, the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or MDLCC, has hired a full-time, year-round director. In the past, it was a temporary job lasting six to nine months in an election year.
The new MDLCC director is Lauren Caldwell, 30, a University of Montana graduate and a former member of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ staff. She started working for the party in the late summer or early fall of 2011 and began fundraising to create the full-time job after the 2012 elections.
“People bought on, crucially,” she said in a recent interview. “Now we have someone year-round, full time.”
She has a small staff now focused on recruiting and training legislative candidates, with more people to be added in 2014 to help legislative candidates.
For the first time ever, the committee will put on a legislative candidate training workshop this fall.
“This is a really good opportunity for us,” Caldwell said. “I think the earlier, the better, for the kind of grass-roots campaigning we want to do.”
Democrats are still trying to catch up from a dismal year in 2010 for state House candidates. After a 50-50 split in the House in 2009, Republicans racked up an 18-seat gain in 2010, giving them a massive 68-32 majority for the 2011 session. Democrats cut the Republican lead to 61-39 for 2013.
Democrats haven’t held a majority in the House since 1991.
In the Senate, Democrats controlled the chamber in 1991, 1993, 2005 and 2007.
In 2011, the Senate was split, with 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats.
Democrats gained seven House seats in 2012, but lost one Senate seat.
Through much of the period when Republicans controlled both legislative chambers, Democrats held most of the statewide elective offices.
Caldwell is optimistic about the chance of Democrats making gains in the Legislature in the 2014 election.
“I think we have greater opportunities to obtain gains in 2014,” she said. “Republicans focus largely on negative mail, often ‘dark-money’ mail. Our focus as Democrats is door-to-door, face to face.”
The earlier the MDLCC can recruit legislative candidates and train them, the sooner the candidates can start knocking on doors to meet the people in their districts, Caldwell said.
“They’re trying to reach 5,000 and 10,000 voters,” she said, referring to the estimated numbers in a state House and Senate district respectively.
It also will mark the first time that candidates for both houses will run in new legislative districts approved by the state Districting and Apportionment Commission. Districts have been revised to better reflect the changes in populations throughout the state as determined by the census in 2010.
‘I think redistricting just creates a level playing field,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think anyone was overjoyed with how redistricting went. We’re recruiting candidates who share their community’s values. If we recruit good candidates, we’ll get them elected.”
In 2014, all 100 House seats are up for grabs, along with 25 of the 50 Senate seats.
“We certainly think every seat is important,” she said. “Our goal is to recruit candidates in every seat.”
In seats with Republican incumbents, she said it’s important to have a Democrat running to hold the GOP lawmaker accountable.
“We have a goal to fight for every single seat and have a goal to help people in really tough seats,” Caldwell said. “You can believe our program pushes them to talk to every voter as many times as they can.”
Caldwell said she believes the split in the current Republican House and Senate caucuses provides opportunities for Democrats.
This year, a number of Republicans calling themselves “Responsible Republicans” split from the other Republicans and worked with Democrats to pass an overhaul of school funding, reform of the state pensions and authorization for construction of some new university system buildings.
“I think the extreme wing of their party has taken control of their leadership,” Caldwell said.
“Democrats were able to join with responsible members of the Republican Party.”
While Republicans are struggling to figure out what they stand for, she said Democrats are a united party.
Republicans take a different approach to their legislative campaigns than Democrats.
“In our case, the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee hires its own staff, and they function as a separate entity,” said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the state Republican Party.
Republicans hire a consultant year-round to help with legislative races. The consultant is Dustin Frost, a partner in Forty Seven North Communications, based in Billings. The firm does political consulting for Republican candidates.