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Horse Sense: Contest for Democratic chair in Montana comes down to 2

Horse Sense: Contest for Democratic chair in Montana comes down to 2

HELENA - Barring a last-minute entry, the race for the chairmanship of the Montana Democratic Party will be a two-person contest.

Jim Elliott and Trudy Skari are vying to succeed Dennis McDonald, the party's state chairman the past four years. McDonald, a rancher from Melville, is running instead for his party's nomination for Congress in 2010.

Democrats will elect their party's top leader at a state officers' convention in Bozeman Aug. 29.

Republicans elected a new chairman in June in Will Deschamps, of Missoula. Now it's the Democrats' turn.

Elliott, 66, is a former legislator from Trout Creek who served in the state House and Senate for 16 years.

He is a retired rancher with a small timber operation on his place in Sanders County.

Skari, 55, is from Chester but is working in Helena for at least a year on a broadband Internet mapping project for a state agency. She has farmed and been a Liberty County commissioner.

Both Elliott and Skari lost races for the state House in 2008 and bring different backgrounds to the race.

Elliott, a Pennsylvania native with a degree from San Francisco State College, has lived in Montana for 35 years.

He said the state party must pay "a heck of a lot more attention" to rural Montanans, who share the same values as state Democrats.

"Without rural seats, Democrats can't control the houses of the Legislature," he said.

At both the state and local levels, Democrats need to do a better job putting their beliefs into "succinct understandable messages," sound bites, Elliott said.

If he's elected, Elliott said he will readily debate philosophy with Republicans but not get into personalities.

He counts many Republicans, as well as Democrats, as friends.

Meanwhile, Skari, born and raised in the Chester area, cited her experience chairing both the Liberty County Democratic Central Committee and the state party's county chairs association.

"I have been able to see firsthand the strength and value of the local county organizations," she said.

A Montana State University graduate, Skari said she views the Democratic chairmanship job as one of encouraging people to get involved in their communities.

That includes everything from water and sewer districts to municipal elections and beyond.

"We can build our leadership and (get people to) run for the Legislature and statewide offices," she said. "It's an opportunity to really do some party-building."

Top priorities for both are unseating U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who now holds the lone Republican statewide office in Montana, and winning control of the Montana House and Senate. The House is now split with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, while Republicans hold a 27-23 majority in the Senate.

It's no secret that the 2008 state Democratic legislative campaign effort was the party's chief weakness in a year when they otherwise ran the table in statewide races, except for Rehberg's seat.

In 2005, McDonald won the Democratic chairman's post in a bruising four-way battle, helped by endorsements from Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. Schweitzer and Baucus' political staffs, armed with clipboards and lists, twisted arms hard for the rancher.

Whether Schweitzer, Baucus and the other statewide Democratic elected officials will push for Elliott or Skari remains to be seen.

The winner will hold the unpaid job as the party's leading spokesman, chief fundraiser, candidate recruiter and handle whatever other duties that fall that way for the next two years.

It's an important but too-often thankless job in both political parties. Party chairmen are often blamed for poor election showings, but they usually receive little credit for wins.

In Montana, unlike in some states, party chairmen's posts have rarely been a launching pad for future political office. The one exception in the past 20 years is Rick Hill, who was elected to Congress in 1996 after heading the Republican Party earlier that decade.

Whether McDonald can parlay the chairmanship into a win over Rehberg is uncertain. He first must win a primary.

Some Democrats are concerned about McDonald's second consecutive lackluster fundraising effort in his House race. From April through June, he was out-raised by his primary opponent, Tyler Gernant, a young Missoula lawyer with none of McDonald's built-in connections and advantages.

However, some Democrats say that McDonald, a California lawyer turned Montana rancher, can write his campaign a big check if needed.

Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. Contact him at 800-525-4920, 406-447-4066 or chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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