WASHINGTON – Perennial candidate Bob Kelleher won an upset victory in Montana’s Republican U.S. Senate primary early Wednesday, making a tough race even tougher for the state GOP.
Kelleher, an 85-year-old attorney from Butte, will challenge Democrat incumbent Max Baucus in November. Baucus is a five-term U.S. senator who had more than $6 million in the bank in May and has raised more than $10 million since he was last re-elected in 2002.
Kelleher, who has run for office in the state at least 13 times, has not filed any campaign finance reports, meaning he has not raised or spent more than $5,000 in the race.
The new nominee’s views are far from the mainstream Republican party in Montana. He has run as both a Democratic and a Green Party candidate, and he has advocated more gun control. Kelleher did not return several calls seeking comment on Election Night.
Erik Iverson, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, said the race would not be a priority for the GOP. Instead, Republicans will focus on the more competitive governor’s race, Iverson said.
“Republican primary voters have spoken, and Bob Kelleher won,” he said. “But as a party we have limited time and resources, and we need to allocate those resources where they can best be spent.”
Kirk Bushman, an industrial facilities designer from Billings, and former Montana House Majority Leader Michael Lange were thought to be the front-runners in the Republican primary. But the unofficial vote tally, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Kelleher won with 36 percent of the vote. Lange had 23 percent, and Bushman had 21 percent.
A recent poll showed Baucus would have a sizable advantage come November. The Lee Newspapers poll last month found Baucus with a 65 percent to 26 percent lead over Lange and a 67 percent to 26 percent lead over Bushman.
Those polled were not even asked about Kelleher.
Kelleher’s unexpected win came as another upset candidate, former Montana House Speaker John Driscoll, was the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Iverson said Kelleher probably won because voters didn’t know very much about any of the candidates.
“I think what happened is you had a crowded five-person field, none of whom raised any money or had any name ID,” he said.
The other Republicans running were accountant Patty Lovaas of Missoula and Anton Pearson, a truck driver and rancher from St. Regis.
Baucus, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, appeared to be preparing for a more competitive campaign.
His campaign issued a statement Tuesday evening saying the senator had about 70 paid campaign staff working out of nine offices across the state — an operation Baucus said was “the largest grassroots, people-to-people campaign Montana has ever seen.”