On Giant Slayers

By Beacon Staff

Don’t blame Steve Daines. The Republican to whom many in the party were pinning their slim hopes has opted not to run against Gov. Brian Schweitzer – thus saving the Bozeman tech mogul’s face and time devoted to campaigning, fundraising and lowly partisan bickering.

Daines, instead, said he will spend more time with his family; a common excuse (however genuine) that the politically ambitious use when they realize their chances of victory are nil. Going up against the massive coffers and well-oiled political machine of a sitting incumbent is often impossible unless that person is caught up in a major scandal, or a series of smaller ones.

Just two months ago, at the GOP convention in Helena, Daines looked the part of an aspiring politico, a giant slayer. He was a platinum sponsor at the event. He wined and dined with party elite and took digs at the governor in the press. He had financed a Web site dubbed GiveItBack.com, with his picture on the front page, urging the governor to return more of the state’s $1 billion surplus to taxpayers. His group also made a commercial with Schweitzer’s mug on a milk carton asking why he was “missing” in California raising money during a rocky legislative session.

The pieces were in place, but the odds still daunting. Schweitzer, a fairly popular governor, has already raised $600,000 for his re-election campaign. More will be deposited before he unloads it on any Republicans coerced into running against him. And that challenger will be left humiliated, defeated and wondering why he or she ran in the first place.

Daines mulled over his prospects and then ran for cover. For now, the governor is unchallenged. But he’s armed with the funds, lying in wait, ready to flood the airwaves with commercials that will likely include as many shots of his dog Jag as jabs at his opponents’ integrity. So goes the life of an incumbent.

If Schweitzer is Teflon, Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and Republican U.S. Congressman Denny Rehberg are bulletproof. Incumbents in U.S. Congress are reelected at an overwhelming rate. In 2006, 94 percent of House incumbents and about 80 percent of senators won re-election following a year beset with scandal. In 2004, more of the norm, those numbers were 98 percent and 96 percent respectively.

While Schweitzer awaits his competition, County Commissioner Bill Kennedy of Billings is challenging Rehberg and Rep. Michael Lange, also of Billings, is going after Baucus’ seat. They are sure to be outspent and, if recent elections are any indication, buried under the weight of campaign propaganda.

In 2002, Republican Senate candidate Mike Taylor, challenging Baucus, dropped out of the race when the Democrats aired a commercial of him rubbing lotion on a man’s face from an early 1980s infomercial plugging a chain of hair-care salons. Taylor said the ad, which Baucus never endorsed, made him look gay.

In 2006, Republicans poked fun at U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s, D-Mont., flattop, saying that the hairdo was masking his views on gay marriage. Tester, however, unseated former Sen. Conrad Burns by a narrow margin after Burns took a beating in the press over his alleged ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Unless their opponents are able to dig up some incriminating skeletons, the incumbents in 2008 should breeze to victory, but not before running up the score. Rehberg outspent his opponent, Monica Lindeen, $1.2 million to $500,000 in 2006. Baucus nearly tripled Taylor’s spending in 2002. This year should be no different.

Incumbents have deep pockets with more money to belittle the competition. With Daines by the wayside, former state Senate President Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, is now considering running against Schweitzer or Baucus. He’s taking his time and acknowledged, in a moment of refreshing candor, “it would be a family decision whether to subject yourself to a daily colonoscopy.”

He hasn’t asked my advice on the matter, but if he did, I would remind him: Colonoscopies hurt.