HELENA – Former state Democratic Chairman Dennis McDonald fended off a late surge by newcomer Tyler Gernant on Tuesday to win the party’s nomination for U.S. House.
McDonald now faces the task of trying to unseat five-term Rep. Denny Rehberg in the Nov. 2 general election. After learning of his victory Tuesday night, McDonald immediately went on the attack against the Republican incumbent.
“He’s a professional politician who’s been asleep in his office for the last 10 years. He’s offered no ideas, no solutions, no hope,” McDonald said. “I’m just going to go out across Montana as I’ve been doing and tell the voters what I’m about. They already know that Rehberg has done absolutely nothing.”
Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps shot back with a statement that said McDonald is of “questionable character and extreme leftist ideology.”
“Montana needs character and conviction. Dennis McDonald has neither,” Deschamps said.
With 609 of 792 precincts reporting, McDonald captured about 39 percent of the vote. Gernant, a 28-year-old Missoula attorney, had 24 percent of the vote, and Great Falls paralegal Melinda Gopher had 20 percent.
Sam Rankin, a Billings real-estate broker who previously ran for and lost a state legislative seat in 1982, was last in the field of four with just under 17 percent of the vote.
McDonald, 66, lives in Melville with his wife, Sharon, and their four children. He was chairman of the Montana Democratic Party from 2005 until last year.
When McDonald was an attorney in California, he was known for representing organized crime figure-turned mob informant Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, which Montana Republicans used to attack him when he emerged as the Democratic front-runner to unseat Rehberg last year. McDonald said his work led to Fratianno turning state’s evidence against other mobsters.
Gernant made a surprising run in the months leading to the election, raising more money than McDonald. Gernant is a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus and worked on Sen. John Edwards’ first presidential campaign. He billed himself as an advocate of renewable energy, and has been vocal in his opposition to coal.
“I am enthusiastically supporting him,” Gernant said of McDonald. “This isn’t about Dennis Mcdonald or me. It’s about Montana. I think Montana really needs a change.”
McDonald raised about $167,000 and spent most of it in the tough primary battle. Gernant raised about $124,500 and also spent most of it.
McDonald will now have to compete with Rehberg, who has about $750,000 in the bank.
“I’ll never be able to raise the capital he has,” McDonald said. “I’m going to depend on ordinary Montanans to finance my campaign.”
McDonald will have to look for chinks in Rehberg’s armor that may have been exposed in the GOP primary, said University of Montana political science professor Christopher Muste.
Muste said McDonald could benefit from an anti-incumbent voter mood, but the Democrats still face an uphill battle in trying to oust Rehberg.
“Democrats are going to have to find some issue that really resonates with the voters,” Muste said.
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