Democrats Get Rolled

By Beacon Staff

In 2007, Flathead County sent three Democratic legislators to Helena for the session, representing Columbia Falls and Whitefish in the House and Senate. Three years earlier, voters put one Democrat on the three-person county commission. And though the House seat representing downtown Kalispell changed parties almost every election, it looked as if Democrats had, for a few years, managed to establish a small political foothold in the Flathead Valley.

That foothold crumbled in last week’s election as Republicans snuffed out every Democrat-held elective office in the county, reasserting the Flathead Valley as one of Montana’s conservative bastions. Incumbent Republicans held their seats by massive margins, in some races winning 80 percent or more of the vote. The GOP won three-way races with no incumbents by several hundred votes each in Columbia Falls’ House District 3 and Kalispell’s House District 8: comfortable victories for a midterm election where voter turnout was about 52 percent. Republican Pam Holmquist received nearly twice as many votes as incumbent Democratic County Commissioner Joe Brenneman.

But nowhere in the Flathead was the conservative ascendancy more apparent than in Whitefish’s House District 4, represented for the last six years by Democrat Mike Jopek. Republican Derek Skees, a political newcomer and unapologetic Tea Party-style conservative, defeated Democrat Will Hammerquist with 51 percent of the vote, a margin of 87 votes.

“The most conservative man in the Flathead wins the most liberal seat,” Skees said last week, jubilant about his victory. “It’s a miracle that I was able to win in Whitefish.”

Skees will be among 68 fellow Republican representatives sent to Helena as part of a statewide sweep that saw the GOP win seats in traditionally Democratic strongholds, like American Indian reservations, Butte and Helena. The GOP managed to add a seat to their Senate majority as well, setting up what should be an interesting dynamic as Brian Schweitzer, for his last session as governor, attempts to work with an all-Republican legislative branch for the first time.

In the wake of the 2010 election, Democrats across Montana are wondering how they were rejected so thoroughly by voters, particularly when the state’s financial condition is better than 48 others. The blow is particularly stinging following the 2008 elections, which handed Democrats every statewide office, leaving District 2 Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar the highest ranking Republican in state government for the last two years. (Molnar will likely now chair the PSC as Republicans regained a majority there as well.)

For Scott Wheeler, chairman of the Flathead County Democrats and an unsuccessful candidate for House District 6, the election results were a wake-up call.

“It was a dark night for the Democrats,” Wheeler said. “What we really need to do now is figure out what to do next time.”

Wheeler believes the GOP managed to effectively link local Democratic candidates to unpopular national leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even President Barack Obama. (A recent MSU-Billings poll found 60 percent of Montana voters disapprove of Obama’s job performance.) That, along with an influx of negative advertising from political action committees like Western Tradition Partnership and the Better Government PAC, which is related to the Flathead Business and Industry Association, helped the GOP capitalize on an already favorable landscape, according to Wheeler.

“The Republicans have done a great job of connecting – unfairly – local politics with national politics,” Wheeler said. “The Republicans were incredibly well-funded by some large, local single donors and PACs.”

Jopek agreed with Wheeler’s characterization of Republicans nationalizing the election, but also places blame on his own party, saying Democrats, “did a poor job of building any enthusiasm toward their base.” He noted voter turnout in House District 4 was lower in downtown Whitefish, where Democrats are stronger, than the more rural areas where Skees gained his edge.

“If urban and younger voters do not vote, you’ll likely see more Democratic losses in Flathead’s future,” Jopek added.

Democrat Dan Weinberg, who formerly held the Senate District 2 seat now held by Republican Ryan Zinke, representing Whitefish and Columbia Falls, said Montana Democrats didn’t sufficiently emphasize their stable stewardship of the state government.

“We don’t make a very good case for ourselves in that we don’t really explain to the public what good work we do in Helena,” Weinberg said. “People don’t really know what’s happening in the state Legislature and they’re satisfied not knowing.”

“It’s kind of frustrating,” he added. “I wish we had a more responsible media and a better way of getting information out there.”

Republicans, on the other hand, feel that their core messages of limited government and focus on creating an environment hospitable to job creation resonated with voters at a time of deep economic anxiety – what Skees described as a “perfect storm” that complemented his dogged, optimistic campaigning in Whitefish.

“It was the year to be a Republican,” he added, while also acknowledging the Democrats’ assertion that national issues helped sweep the GOP into office, even at the local level.

“The national mindset was that this election was huge,” Skees said. “So a lot of that carried over here.”

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, finance chair of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, said the GOP legislative pickups in Tuesday’s election exceeded their wildest expectations – and agreed that Montana Democrats were hampered by national Democrats, for good reason.

“For the most part they do reflect Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid,” Tutvedt said. “There’s not a lot of difference between the majority of their caucus and these individuals.”

“The Democrats are beholden to the unions and big environmental groups and these two groups have moved them hard to the left,” Tutvedt said.

Tutvedt also believes Democrats, and particularly Schweitzer, focused too much of their resources on Billings’ Senate District 25 contest between Democrat Kendall Van Dyk and former Republican gubernatorial nominee Roy Brown. According to Tutvedt, the focus on S.D. 25, the most expensive legislative race ever in Montana, caused Democrats to ignore races in other districts throughout the state not usually in play.

“There was a lot of voter discontent out there,” Tutvedt said. “We spent our money strategically; we think the governor spent all his money on Roy Brown.”

But though much of the political discussion nationally revolved around pressure from the conservative Tea Party movement on establishment Republicans, in the Flathead long-standing Republican lawmakers experienced no such challenges, despite the presence of several newly formed groups, like Freedom Action Rally and Northwest Montana Patriots.

According to Sen. Verdell Jackson, who handily won reelection last week and is active in Freedom Action Rally, these so-called “freedom groups” deem Flathead Republicans sufficiently conservative so as not to draw primary challenges from them. Several Freedom Action Rally volunteers worked on GOP campaign efforts.

“What the freedom group has done, it’s pushed the Republicans to the right,” Jackson said. “I think that’s a positive move.”

Though it’s not something the GOP can take for granted.

“They are watching the candidates very closely,” Jackson said. “If there’s a liberal Republican, they’ll challenge them.”

James Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana, thinks Democrats had an uphill battle heading into this election in terms of how voters perceive them.

“This election cycle, Republicans meant someone who would hold taxes down, hold spending down, limit government,” Lopach said. “The image of Democrats coming through was something else.”

But he cautioned Democrats should not be “overly dismayed,” nor should the GOP be “overly gleeful.” When the 2012 elections roll around, if the economy has not improved, Republicans will also bear some responsibility. If the economy does improve, the attention of voters may shift to other areas, like education, conservation and other issues – potentially allowing Democrats to gain a foothold once more, in the Flathead and elsewhere.

“Two years from now, four years from now, the things that are of concern to (voters) can favor the Democrats,” Lopach said. “This just happens in politics over and over again, that what appears to be an extinct species comes back to life.”

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