Only One Announced Candidate Left for State Democratic Chairman

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A former legislator who wants to extend Montana Democratic Party successes into rural areas is the only announced candidate for chairman as the party prepares to pick new leaders this weekend in Bozeman.

Jim Elliott of Trout Creek, a retired rancher, served in both the House and Senate for 16 years. Elliott said the Democratic Party could improve the way it communicates with rural Montana, and he hopes to make the party more competitive for those legislative seats.

“We need to do a better job of elucidating our values to the rural electorate,” said Elliott, who no longer serves in the Legislature after reaching term limits in the Senate and losing last year in a House race.

Other people interested in running for party chairman could step forward before Saturday’s conclusion of the Montana Democratic Party Officers and Rules Convention. But Elliott so far is unopposed after Trudy Skari — who was previously on the Liberty County Democratic Central Committee and now lives in Helena — withdrew her candidacy this week, citing the demands of the volunteer position.

Elliott said he has traveled the state campaigning for the volunteer post and meeting with local party leaders.

“Change takes a long time,” Elliott said. “I am in no way going to say we are going to go out and sweep the rural seats. But we will go out and talk about what Democrats have done for the state of Montana, what we have done for rural areas, farmers and ranchers and why we have done it.”

Elliott said key swing seats Democrats need to win in order to control the Legislature almost always hold rural voters.

Margins in the Legislature have been razor thin in recent years, leading to contentious battles. Both parties are making legislative seats a big priority for 2010, an off-year with little excitement on the ballot.

Democrats hold all five statewide offices from Gov. Brian Schweitzer on down, and both U.S. Senate seats. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus again easily won election last year for another six-year term. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is not up for re-election until 2012.

Next year’s ballot does feature the re-election battle for the state’s top Republican, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. In recent years he has easily topped Democratic challengers.

Current Chairman Dennis McDonald is not seeking another term because he is looking to challenge Rehberg. But he faces a primary challenge from Missoula lawyer Tyler Gernant who so far has been making a splash with his fundraising work.

The party is also considering rule changes that in the future would require a chairman to step down if he starts running for office in a contested race, such as McDonald has.

The convention will also feature speeches from party leaders like Schweitzer and Tester.

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