HELENA – If Montana’s Republican convention provided any insight into the strength, morale and strategy of the GOP, it happened with a reminder of its worst recent defeat. It wasn’t when presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the roughly 200 delegates Friday morning over steak and eggs. It wasn’t when Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams said the Rocky Mountain West remains a stronghold of Republican values. It wasn’t Sunday when U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg tried to dispel the notion that any type of divide exists in the party between moderates and conservatives.
If the convention shifted into a high gear, it happened when former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns took the stage for an auction of donated items to raise funds for Republican groups.
This was not the beleaguered, weary man who spent last year in an unsuccessful tooth-and-nail fight against Jon Tester, when Democrats uprooted GOP incumbents across the country. A former Burns aide said that campaign aged him 10 years.
But you wouldn’t have known that to see him Saturday night. He had his audience hooting with laughter, hanging on his every word. This was Burns unshackled: an old auctioneer among friends, a coach with his playing days behind him, without worry that anything he might say would turn up on YouTube.com the next day.
“Free at last, free at last,” Burns softly intoned between bids at one point. Then he related an anecdote about a recent visit to Missoula, where high voter turnout helped push Tester over the top last November. A “little old lady” had approached Burns on the sidewalk wagging her finger in his face telling him, “Oh, we finally beat you!”
Burns paused, with a coy grin on his face before telling the audience his reply:
“I said ‘Look, little lady, you can stand there and talk all you want to, I don’t care anymore.”
Raffling off a ski trip for four to the private Yellowstone Club in the Gallatin Valley, Burns joked that whoever won would have to deal with MoveOn.org howling “Wooh! They’re skiing with those fat cats!”
When the auction was over and the band next door was setting up for Rehberg’s BootPAC party, Burns grew serious. Before him sat state lawmakers still reeling from a legislative session in which nearly all GOP members acknowledge they came out losers. On top of that, the re-election chances of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus have overtones, at this very early stage, of inevitability.
“We can sit around and we can cry and whimper but I’m going to tell you something, this is the greatest system in the world,” Burns said. “Just because you don’t win it one time does not mean that you stop fighting.”
The audience was silent.
“You should be very proud of the what you did and the people you sent to the Legislature and they had these hard decisions,” Burns concluded, to a standing ovation. “Don’t ever give up the ghost and don’t give up on your principles.”
Beyond the morale building, the GOP convention allowed Republicans an opportunity to lick their wounds, regroup, and prepare for 2008. Legislators who were pasty, tense and slightly overweight by the closing days of the 2007 session now wandered in and out of crowded hotel room parties looking a little leaner in jeans and jackets, with wide grins and tans.
No one announced their candidacy for governor or senator, but potential candidates made the rounds, and tried to gauge their support within the party through private conversations.
“You get a lot of guys that are kicking the tires,” said Erik Iverson, Rehberg’s chief of staff who was elected as state chairman Sunday morning. “They see how their message may be received.”
Steve Daines, the Bozeman businessman and founder of the political organization GiveItBack.com was omnipresent throughout much of the weekend. Daines dined with party higher-ups and was one of two “platinum sponsors” of the convention, having donated $2,500.
Despite these overt moves, Daines declined to indicate whether or not he would challenge Schweitzer, yet managed to speak in polished, perfect political sound bites when responding to that question.
“I’ve had plenty of people ask me that question. I think it tells me that we have a message that is resonating with average Montana citizens,” Daines said, then took a dig at the governor. “Many Montanans are tired of showmanship and are looking for a return to true statesmanship.”
Daines impressed Flathead lawmakers like Rep. Jon Sonju of Kalispell, who said he should be encouraged to run. Daines’ business experience would allow him to raise enough money to run a competitive race, Sonju said, but the convention might be too early to announce a candidacy.
“He’s trying to sense the political landscape,” Sonju added. “He seems interested but timing is everything in politics.”
Indeed, most Republicans said the convention was not an ideal time to announce a run, since declaring a candidacy has a better chance of making it onto the front pages when it’s not being overshadowed by other political news, like Romney’s appearance.
Rep. Mike Lange of Billings refrained from formally declaring his candidacy for U.S. Senate against Baucus, but indicated that he would make that announcement this week. Lange was voted out as House majority leader shortly after adjournment of the legislative special session, when his willingness to compromise with Schweitzer and Democrats was seen by his colleagues as a break from Republican goals. At the time, Lange was already on thin ice for his now infamous profanity-laced tirade against Schweitzer in the closing days of the regular session.
Most Republicans do not support the prospect of Lange’s candidacy. Still, Lange appeared unfazed by the recent rebuke he received from his party in the Legislature and the scant support among colleagues.
“That that doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” Lange said. “The more difficult the contest, the more determined I am to achieve it.”
Kalispell Sen. Greg Barkus said he would like to see former Bigfork lawmaker Bob Keenan run against Baucus, but Keenan, whose name also circulates as a gubernatorial candidate, was absent from the weekend’s proceedings.
While Rehberg urged Republicans to overcome potential conflicts between factions within the party, GOP members brushed off questions that bitterness by conservatives lingers toward the handful of moderate lawmakers who met with Schweitzer’s staff in a log cabin outside Helena to hammer out the compromise that ended the special session. Few of the “log cabin” Republicans were present at the convention, but Barkus said there will be no move to run more conservative candidates against the lawmakers who compromised.
“Any wounds that are out there, I think that they are starting to get healed,” Sonju said.
Rep. Mark Blasdel of Somers agreed.
“I think there’s been some dialogue between some individuals,” Blasdel said. “I haven’t heard any discussions of upheaving anybody or anything like that.”
The absence of more viable candidates to challenge Schweitzer and Baucus did not appear to concern most Republicans, many of whom prefer to discuss the more realistic opportunity of the GOP to expand the narrow majority in the state House and reclaim a majority in the Senate.
As the convention drew to a close Sunday morning, delegates gathered in a stuffy room to unanimously elect Iverson, 33, state chairman.
“Governor Schweitzer and Montana Democrats have consistently failed to lead this state,” Iverson said in his acceptance speech. “The Democrats had their chance. They did not lead. We will.”
In an internal strategy memo handed out during his speech, Iverson targets five House districts where majorities voted for Burns and Rehberg in 2006, yet elected Democratic state representatives. House District 3, represented by Doug Cordier of Columbia Falls, ranks at the top of the list. In the Senate, Republicans are salivating for seats being vacated by term-limited, moderate Democrats Jim Elliott of Trout Creek and Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow.
Many Republicans interviewed believe Iverson has national office written all over him, and that he is being groomed for Congress when Rehberg eventually decides to run for Senate.
As he addressed an audience that was still slightly groggy from the previous night, Iverson looked out upon a party where old standard bearers like Burns, whose policies eventually led to defeat, are still beloved – and where vague uncertainty about the future lingers.
Iverson’s task will be to prove whether the assertions made by Republican speakers over the course of the weekend are true: that Montana’s electorate remains overwhelmingly Republican, that Schweitzer is not as strong as he looks, and that the state GOP must adapt more effectively to communicating its message in the age of the Internet.
He’s got 16 months.