Democrats’ Early Offense

By Beacon Staff

By most accounts, little news emerged from the recent Montana Democratic convention in Helena. No presidential candidates made appearances. A potential primary challenger for Gov. Brian Schweitzer backed off from the race. Dems unanimously re-elected party chairman Dennis McDonald.

But Democrats also made some decisions with implications for the Flathead Valley. For the first time, three of the seats on the 14-member Democratic Party executive board will be held by Whitefish residents. In coming weeks, Dems plan to open up a field office with a full-time staffer on Baker Street in Whitefish.

It’s a significant gambit. With three legislative incumbents in the north valley up for re-election in 2008 – Sen. Dan Weinberg and Rep. Mike Jopek of Whitefish, and Rep. Douglas Cordier of Columbia Falls – Democrats say they have a foothold in the Flathead, and they intend to hold those seats and expand.

With the rhetoric escalating already, Republicans, unsurprisingly, disagree with the Democrats’ theory about the Flathead’s potential leftward tilt. GOP members say Democrats are nervous about their tenuous hold on the three north valley seats – and the field office and increased resources signify such effort is necessary simply to keep Weinberg, Jopek and Cordier in office.

Jopek called the resources to be funneled to Whitefish over the next 15 months by the Democratic Party “a first.”

“There hasn’t been a field office like this in the Flathead ever,” he said, particularly one set up this early. “We were able to persuade state Democrats that ‘Hey, we need some investment in the Flathead.’”

In the 2007 Legislature, Democrats controlled the Senate with a one-person majority, making it essential for the party that Weinberg hold onto his seat. “They’re going to take Senator Weinberg’s race incredibly seriously,” Jopek added. “We have a very aggressive strategy and we’re not taking anything for granted.”

Jim Farrell, executive director for the state Democratic Party, and Jopek say they believe a demographic shift is underway in the Flathead, traditionally a Republican stronghold. The influx of new residents – many of whom come from out of state – along with rampant economic growth are contributing to an increasingly independent-minded and hopefully Democratic electorate, Farrell said.

And Whitefish will be the outpost from which Dems make their stand. The field office will be staffed by Bryce Bennett, 22, a recent University of Montana graduate and former president of the statewide college Democrats. The three Whitefish residents elected to the Dems’ executive board are Shannon Hanson, Joan Vetter Ehrenberg, and Marshall Friedman (Friedman sits on the Beacon’s business advisory board).

“The Flathead holds a greater promise for Democratic inroads than any area in the state,” Farrell added. “Republicans have fully dominated with voters for many years there, but the times are changing and the temper of voters in the Flathead is changing also.”

Farrell believes the Flathead bears strong resemblances to the Bitterroot Valley, where similar increases in growth and development are underway. He is encouraged by a June Ravalli County commissioners race, in which voters elected two Democrats and an Independent who campaigned with Democrats to the five-member board, and he lambasted Flathead’s Republican state lawmakers performance in the bitter and highly partisan 2007 Legislature.

“Republican legislators from the Flathead are undistinguished and unimpressive,” Farrell said. “They failed the people they represented in the 2007 Legislature.”

But state GOP Chairman Erik Iverson, who plans to open a Kalispell field office at the start of 2008, said Democrats wouldn’t be making such an early investment unless they felt their north valley incumbents are in shaky territory.

“My hunch is that they’re putting an office up there is not a decision on offense,” he said. “It’s a decision on defense.”

Iverson agrees with Farrell on one count, saying “I don’t think there’s any question that the demographics are changing in western Montana.” But as the population and economy in western Montana expand, both parties will have to adapt, and Republicans, he said, can shepherd those changes just as well as Democrats. Iverson also thinks it’s foolhardy on the part of Democrats to derive too much encouragement from a single county commission race in the Bitterroot, an area, he said, that has traditionally swung back and forth between control by the two parties.

“There is some real danger on the part of the Democrats if they try to draw too much of a parallel between Ravalli and the rest of the state,” he added.

While Jopek’s House District 4, encompassing the city of Whitefish, remains firmly Democratic, it’s no secret that Republicans have their sights set on Weinberg and Cordier. Cordier, representative for House District 3 – which encompasses Columbia Falls, West Glacier, and the communities between – won a narrow victory against Dee Brown in 2006, 1,815 to 1,560.

But in the U.S. Senate race, Cordier’s House District 3 went to Republican Conrad Burns with 1,865 votes over Jon Tester’s 1,568 votes. Weinberg eked out a 67-vote victory against Republican Donna Maddux in 2004, winning 4,470 to 4,403. His senate district encompasses Jopek’s and Cordier’s house districts. Iverson believes House District 3 going to Burns makes both Weinberg and Cordier vulnerable.

At this early stage, Iverson and Farrell are still fielding candidates, and declined to name potential challengers. Both said seats held by Republicans in Kalispell look fairly safe as well. Farrell mentioned that Jim Elliott, a termed out, moderate Democrat senator for Trout Creek, may challenge Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, for House District 13.

As for Cordier, he said attempts by party strategists to paint his district as “blue” or “red” simply don’t fit.

“There a lot of folks up here that I would look at as independent voters, rather than strictly Republican or strictly Democrat,” Cordier added. “It could be that it’s not as strongly Republican as some might think it is.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.