Schweitzer’s Successor

By Kellyn Brown

Few were surprised when Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock entered the contest to be Montana’s next governor. Still, his announcement assured that our gubernatorial race will be one of the most closely watched, and competitive, in the country.

Politico’s David Cantanese wrote, “Bullock’s entry was widely anticipated for months and is likely the Democrats’ best chance to hold on to the seat being vacated by the term-limited Gov. Brian Schweitzer.”

This state has been trending redder the last few years. The 2010 general election was nothing short of a drumming for Democrats across the state. Yet while the GOP gained the majority in the House and added to it in the Senate, Schweitzer has remained relatively popular and his endorsement, if he gives it to Bullock, will mean something.

Another advantage may be Bullock’s name recognition as the current attorney general. He is also well liked among his party and should coast to a primary win (Bozeman state Sen. Larry Jent is the other Democrat running), whereas the GOP primary race is a crowded one.

Former U.S. Congressman Rick Hill is a frontrunner, at least in terms of money raised so far, and he has the backing of many in the GOP establishment.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ken Miller has cast himself as the candidate most in line with the tea party and, according to the Associated Press, recently sold his Laurel furniture store to focus on his campaign.

Corey Stapleton, who like Miller is a former state senator, told the AP that he is also appealing to more conservative and main street Republicans and gives the party the best chance to win in the general elections.

Neil Livingstone, a security and anti-terrorism consultant who splits time between Washington D.C. and Helena, tapped Whitefish state Sen. Ryan Zinke as his running mate and is somewhat a wild card in the race.

Chouteau County Commissioner Jim O’Hara is also running. And the Republican field may not be set.

State Sen. Jeff Essmann from Billings is “actively considering” a run. And, according to the AP, he is being encouraged to get in the race by GOP consultants with close ties to Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg. Dustin Frost, Rehberg’s former state director and a partner in 47 North Communications, said Essmann would be a “heavyweight” if he runs.

Early polls do little to clear up the Republican field. The only constant is that Hill leads. A February poll conducted by 47 North found Hill ahead of second-place Stapleton 18 percent to 8 percent – with a whopping 71 percent undecided. A Public Policy Polling survey released in July had Hill leading (35 percent) and Livingstone second (15 percent) and 29 percent undecided. Another poll, also released in July by Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies, reported Hill with 24 percent, Miller in second with 13 percent, and 52 percent undecided. In a head-to-head matchup Hill and Bullock, according to a PPP poll, run about even.

At this point, the race among Republican candidates other than Hill involves establishing themselves as top tier between now and June 2012. Voters here are apt to see a lot of them. Support from Flathead voters will be crucial, as this is the most conservative urban county in the state and alone could swing the primary.

While GOP candidates can coalesce to take aim at Bullock, the large field of candidates will have to differentiate themselves, a struggle when they claim to appeal to the same subgroups. In 2004, the Republican gubernatorial primary was so ugly, and the conservative electorate so divided, that political analysts wondered whether the nominee, Bob Brown, could unite his party before the general election. Schweitzer went on to beat him, 50 percent to 46 percent.

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