It’s not supposed to happen this way. Challengers are not supposed to defeat entrenched incumbents in primaries. Yet on June 3rd, three little-known conservatives did just that, and Montana politics may never be the same.
Running energetic, issue-driven campaigns, Mike Miller, Joel Boniek and Lee Randall defeated three heavily favored veteran legislators. Their basic message: if you elect a Republican, you should expect them to vote like a Republican when they get to Helena. Sounds reasonable. The voters agreed – marking a dramatic turn in state politics, toward greater electoral choice and incumbent accountability. GOP pundits are still scratching their heads in disbelief.
It all began in January, when Montana Conservatives – an independent rating organization – released a shocking report on legislative voting patterns. It showed, in essence, that the Montana political system was broken. While Democratic lawmakers all remained true to their liberal traditions, the presumed conservative philosophy of the Republicans was hemorrhaging all over the House and Senate floors. On the fundamental issues expressed in their own party platform, more Republicans rated liberal than conservative, with half of their ranks falling somewhere in between.
The Republicans’ “big tent” philosophy had become a lawn party for liberals. With each passing legislature, these traditional advocates of liberty and limited government were putting up a weaker and weaker defense. Regulations expanded, government grew, and taxpayers were increasingly taking it in the shorts. Privately, many Republicans proclaimed that something must be done. So, being a professional recruiter in my private life, I decided to comb the state for qualified conservative challengers to the liberal incumbents.
When a private e-mail was passed on to a Helena reporter, a hailstorm of liberal indignation soon followed. So vilified had I become, that one would have thought I had launched the Second Spanish Inquisition! Adding their ink to the editorial smears were an assortment of professed “conservative” Republicans, including GOP Whip Rep. Tom McGillvray, who fed the feeding frenzy with rhetoric so inflammatory that he later apologized. Ironically, he also predicted that I would not recruit a single candidate.
The attacks are starting again, from journalists who want to ignore the significance of what has just happened and instead try to make this all about me. Every writer keeps repeating the word “socialist” (which I used exactly once, in private). Every writer keeps branding me an “ultra-conservative;” have you ever heard them refer to a Democrat as an “ultra-liberal?”
But alas, I am neither a hero nor a villain. Perhaps my encouragements and modest campaign assistance have helped in some way. But the true heroes were the three Republican challengers themselves, who ignored all the editorials and the hot air venting from their own party, ran strong, issue-based campaigns and captured the confidence of their voters. If I helped provide a choice for those voters – a choice they ultimately preferred – it is hardly a reason to hang my head.
My only regret was the degree to which these three victories were tainted by the over-the-top attack pieces dumped into their districts, by front groups using shrill rhetoric and tortured logic. Reminiscent of the histrionic rubbish sent out by the Democratic Party in the ’06 elections, these insulting mailings hurt, not helped the conservative challengers, but they won anyway.
There is, I believe, a resounding message connected to these three races. First, it is a message of warning to Republican legislators who might still be inclined to stray far from the small government philosophy of their party, that the voters are watching, and have good memories when they enter the voting booth. Secondly, it is a message of encouragement to future conservative candidates, that it is not as hard to topple liberal Republican incumbents as they might have thought. Four other challengers were within inches of filing this time, but opted out at the last minute. Two years from now, folks like these will be more emboldened to take that step.
Political systems corrupted by special interests and the concentration of power can do bad things to good people. It can feed their ambitions, inflate their egos, exploit their fears and cloud their judgment. Like most public officials, Carol Lambert, John Ward and Bruce Malcolm are good and honorable people, caught up in a system that led them away from the core principles of their own party. They paid the political price for their poor decisions.
I think that’s called democracy. And while it may seem harsh, even brutal at times, it is a reflection of imperfect man’s perfect struggle for liberty. In my own imperfect way, I’ll continue to do my part, and I encourage all Montanans to do the same.
Roger Koopman is a two-term state representative from House District 70 in Gallatin County.
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