Lessons Learned

By Kellyn Brown

From town halls to debates, from PACs to advertisements, voters were schooled by another brutal election season. Here’s some of what we learned:

That midterms are, apparently, immune to economic downturns when the electorate is this polarized. A week before the election, outside spending had already topped $264 million, more than that spent during the 2008 presidential election year and four times what was seen in the 2006 midterm. The final tally will be much higher. Talk about a stimulus.

That Political Action Committees are prevalent in local elections. In Flathead County, once again, PACs were merciless and controversial in their criticism, often saying things a candidate’s rival wouldn’t dare.

That party committees will send you the same mailers three times in three days. While some of them are simply portraits of candidates vacationing with his family, the advertisements often include the following language: “You can’t afford (insert opposing candidate) because he (insert obscure stock holding of a company that is somehow corrupt).” More fodder for the recycling bin.

That not everyone enjoys going negative. State Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, resigned as treasurer from his party’s committee after mailers were sent out criticizing Democrats in his area: a rare stand for civility.

That Jake Eaton is still a player in the Montana Republican Party. Eaton, the former executive director for the state GOP, was tapped to replace MacLaren. Eaton was accused of suppressing voter turnout in 2008: What was that about civility?

That both Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester are lucky they weren’t up for reelection this year. The midterm of the first term is often punishing for the president’s party. The senators, after largely avoiding open town halls in 2009, came out of hiding this year. But if it was their turn to campaign, and the GOP fielded formidable candidates, both could have been in trouble.

That politics are not always local. Despite Montana holding onto a budget surplus, the federal deficit was on the forefront of voters’ minds, especially those involved in the Tea Party.

That the Tea Party is grassroots and relevant, but its supporters often have differing philosophies. When Tim Ravndal was ousted as president of the Helena-based Big Sky Tea Party Association following what appeared to be an anti-gay exchange on Facebook, the move split its membership. Ravndal was appointed executive director of the newly formed Lewis & Clark’s Conservative Tea Party less than two months later.

That some names on the ballot are placeholders. While Republicans fielded competitive candidates in every race in the Flathead, the same can’t be said for Democrats. While the party had several viable aspiring officeholders, it also had a few folks who didn’t campaign at all. The Dems didn’t even have a candidate in the races for clerk and recorder, county attorney, superintendent of public schools or sheriff.

That sheriff races are a big deal. Flathead County’s Republican primary, which Chuck Curry eventually won, included a vote of “no confidence” from the union against incumbent Sheriff Mike Meehan. In Lake County, a critic of the sheriff’s office was served a search warrant after he started a website accusing that department of corruption.

That Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg can raise a lot of money and is, right now, the Republicans’ most practical choice to challenge Tester for his Senate seat in 2012.

That Gov. Brian Schweitzer will continue in politics in some capacity after his term ends in two years. He spent the summer, seemingly in campaign mode, traveling the state defending his policies: fully aware fiscal solvency will be his greatest legacy.
That jobs matter most, even though candidates’ plans to “create” them are often shaky at best.

That it’s a good thing these elections are only once every two years.