HELENA – This week’s spotlight may have been on the presidential primary in Montana — but it was two fringe candidates who stole the show by nabbing major party nominations for Congress.
The biggest shock? The 85-year-old Republican U.S. Senate candidate who has run for political office at least 16 times for three different parties over 40 years. He’s also more liberal than the Democratic incumbent when it comes to handgun restrictions and other issues.
For Montana Democrats, the shocker came when a longshot U.S. House candidate — who had vowed not to campaign and not to raise money — beat the better funded, establishment candidate.
“I think everyone is stunned,” said political scientist Craig Wilson. “It was extraordinary, for sure.”
Political observers across the state have been discussing the twin upsets and debating what could have prompted them. Some say it was a combination of turnout because of the historic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and also name recognition.
In the Republican Senate primary, Bob Kelleher had no money, no campaign staff and no help from the state party — but he’s been running for office for decades. Political observers also say he benefited from a six-way primary where no one raised much money or distinguished themselves.
The best known Republican in the bunch — former state House Majority Leader Mike Lange — had political baggage. He was ousted by his colleagues last year after a profanity-laced speech directed at the governor. The candidate with the strongest financing — Billings businessman Kirk Bushman — finished third.
With Kelleher the victor, Republicans have a candidate who the party faithful will struggle to support come November, a candidate who doesn’t even believe in certain GOP principles.
Kelleher has advocated using Iraq war funds on more food stamps and called for the U.S. to adopt a parliamentary form of government. He does oppose abortion rights.
The Republican Party has not disavowed Kelleher, who was the subject of a Daily Show segment in 2002 that poked fun at his views. Party Chairman Erik Iverson said Kelleher will be allowed to speak at the party’s state convention.
“We don’t need to be discourteous to him. We don’t need to shun him. He is our nominee,” Iverson said.
To Kelleher, the party’s backing means little.
“The party has actually no legal significance,” Kelleher said. “The party platforms are unenforceable. It’s a lie to voters to give them an impression that any party stands for anything.”
Kelleher’s opponent in November is the dean of Montana Democrats — U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who has raised more than $10 million since being re-elected in 2002.
On Wednesday, Baucus said he will continue to run his own race. Staffers said Baucus will not debate Kelleher.
“I am not running against anybody. I am seeking just to renew my six-year contract with Montana voters,” Baucus said. “I am going to work just as hard as I would ordinarily.”
On the Democratic side, political observers pointed to high turnout and name recognition as the reasons why former lawmaker John Driscoll — who has been out of the party for years and who said he would be “perfectly happy” if he lost — beat the party’s favorite newcomer who was perhaps the best hope to unseat U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Driscoll said he was not surprised that he beat Helena lawyer Jim Hunt, who had raised plenty of money and hired professional campaign staff.
Driscoll said he will work to engage voters but still won’t raise any money. During his primary bid, he said he was running because he feels strongly the federal government is corrupt and that money in politics is one of its worst vices.
“It’s up to me to do the best job campaigning I can without any money or raising any money,” Driscoll said Wednesday. “I think it will work out fine.”
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