Presidential Campaign Voted Top Story in Montana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Presidential election that unexpectedly hit Montana, first with a primary battle that featured visits to the state by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and then a significant general election campaign by Obama is the top news story in Montana for 2008 as chosen by members of The Associated Press.

Another election story came in second place. Member editors, news directors and AP journalists picked the Democrats’ sweep of statewide offices, counterbalanced only by the Republican ability to gain control the state Senate and slim win for John McCain, as the next most important story.

Montana never before saw as much presidential candidate attention as it did in 2008.

It started with a spark provided by the first-ever GOP caucus on Super Tuesday in February. Although that event failed to attract any high profile attention of Republican candidates — the drawn-out fight between Obama and Clinton put the focus squarely on the state.

Both of the Democrats campaigned in the state, as did former President Bill Clinton. Obama won the state’s June primary, the nation’s last, secured the nomination — and didn’t let up in Montana.

The Illinois senator opened offices around the state, hired dozens of staffers, aired Montana advertisements and even spent July 4th at the Butte parade.

The attention shocked observers, since the last two Democratic presidential candidates had lost by about 20 points in Montana and only two Democrats had carried the state since 1948.

In the end, Obama could not overcome that history. McCain, who never visited the state and largely left his election battle in Montana to local GOP officials, still beat Obama by a margin of 49.5 percent to 47.2 percent.

Other top stories:

2. Democrats won all five statewide offices, from governor on down. Before election day, Brad Johnson was the sole Republican holding statewide office, occupying the secretary of state’s office and sharing the Capitol’s second floor with Schweitzer. Johnson barely lost to Linda McCulloch, and Democrat Denise Juneau won McCulloch’s old position as state schools superintendent.

Both parties pumped money and effort into the attorney general’s race, which Democrat Steve Bullock won in a close race over Tim Fox. And former legislator Monica Lindeen prevailed over Republican Duane Grimes, another ex-lawmaker, in the state auditor’s race.

It became the first time in decades that Democrats controlled all statewide offices. Republicans took solace in legislative victories that put them in control of the state Senate, and their party’s ability to hold onto the state for presidential candidate John McCain.

3. State coffers took a hit as the year wrapped up and the recession hit Montana. Unemployment rose, and still stayed below most states in the nation, but was no longer close to the historic lows seen less than two years ago. Well-known mining and timber operations announced layoffs.

Fiscal analysts revised state revenue predictions in November, erasing a billion-dollar projected surplus in a series of announcements. Schweitzer at first offered a two-year spending plan he said was a “belt-tightening,” then had to trim it less than a month later.

4. Workers breached the old Milltown Dam near Missoula in March, allowing two famed rivers to begin flowing freely for the first time in a century. It was a pivotal moment in the costly restoration of an area that anchors the nation’s largest Superfund site.

Overall, workers are removing 2.2 million cubic yards of contaminated mud from behind the hydroelectric dam and will eventually dismantle the entire structure. The mud is the result of more than century of mining upstream in Butte and has threatened fish and water in the area.

5. The fight over control of wolves continues as a Montana judge orders the animals back onto the endangered species list and under federal control once again. The move angers some area ranchers who lose livestock to the wolves, and some hunters who say the wolves deplete game animals. The Bush administration was expected to again remove the region’s estimated 1,500 wolves from the endangered species — a move that will likely result in another federal court fight.

6. More than 1,600 bison from Yellowstone National Park are captured and slaughtered or shot by hunters and wildlife agents as they exit the park — the largest number of bison killed in decades. Debate over a separate cattle management zone around Yellowstone National Park continues as the Board of Livestock and the cattle industry wrangle over ways to deal with brucellosis, a disease carried by many bison.

7. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer makes waves at the Democratic National Convention with a rousing speech, and cruises to re-election over Republican challenger Roy Brown by a 2-1 margin. Schweitzer further boosts his national image by becoming chairman of the Democratic National Governor’s Association.

8. Gov. Brian Schweitzer apologizes for a summer speech, which comes to light in the heat of his re-election battle, and says he was just joking when he spoke to a group of trial lawyers about apparently fixing the 2006 election for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

9. Police announce arrests of two men in a triple murder that shook Florence in 2001. Lincoln Benavides and Brian Weber are charged in the deaths of three women at the Hair Gallery Salon. The indictment alleges that Weber killed the women and that Benavides ordered the killing.

10. The Yellowstone Club files for bankruptcy in November. The resort for the ultra rich said it was running out of money amid tight credit markets, but its $400 million in debt was incurred at least in part through transfers of money to former club owner Tim Blixseth.