HELENA – An election that held great expectations for Montana Republicans turned into a GOP flop at the ballot box.
Republicans had been counting on a new era of political dominance by taking back a U.S. Senate seat lost in 2006, returning to control of the governor’s office lost in 2004 and taking over enough statewide seats to control the land board that manages state oil and timber assets.
None of that happened.
The party instead is forced to console itself with wins in far lesser races, and its members now face a tough political reality.
After Tuesday’s election, Democrats still control both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, by far the biggest prize in politics. And Attorney General Steve Bullock’s win keeps the governor’s office in the hands of Democrats, ensuring that his party holds the most influential position over state policies.
“Yes, obviously, we lost in the top two races. That is well known, and no one is going to try and spin that differently,” Montana Republican Party executive director Bowen Greenwood said of the U.S. Senate and governor races. “But if our expectations were not so high, this would have been a very good year.”
Republicans still control the Legislature. With a few races still too close to call, Republicans could build slightly on their 28-22 advantage in the Montana Senate, while losing only about half a dozen seats in the House they currently control 69-32.
The GOP also appears set to take control, with a couple narrow wins, of the Public Service Commission that regulates utilities. Voters also endorsed GOP ballot measures requiring parental notification on abortion, banning state services for illegal immigrants, opposing government health insurance mandates and endorsing the GOP-led restrictions for medical marijuana.
Plus, Republican Tim Fox won the attorney general’s office vacated by Bullock, putting at least one Republican on the five-seat Land Board. And Republicans held onto hopes that late votes could still put Sandy Welch over Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.
But the notion that Democratic Sen. Max Baucus could be vulnerable in 2014 is less certain after the Republicans’ best candidate just lost to junior Sen. Jon Tester in an anti-President Barack Obama political environment that was supposed to favor the GOP.
“If you look at the fundament data, Tester should be sitting on the farm in Big Sandy right now as a loser. He isn’t,” said Montana State University political scientist David Parker. “There are several reasons for that. But you have to say that Jon Tester was a phenomenal candidate. And, you have to say we don’t understand Montana voters as much as we thought we did.”
Republicans banked on a simple message of tying Democrats to President Barack Obama. It wasn’t enough, even though Obama lost in Montana 55-42.
The GOP expected to catch up to Democrats’ ability to drive voters to the polls. Instead, Democrats leaped ahead and again used same-day voter registration to their advantage.
“There were a great deal more voters than we expected after the dust settled,” Greenwood said. “They had a very good turnout operation.”
Democrats also expertly exploited a schism in the GOP base and used third-party money to effectively promote Libertarian Dan Cox as the true conservative in the race. Cox reeled in more than 6 percent of the vote, enough to perhaps cost Denny Rehberg at a chance at winning.
Tester, who long believed that Montana voters wouldn’t go for the attacks that portrayed him as a sellout to Washington, D.C., won by a larger margin than anyone predicted — 4 percent with most of the vote counted.
“Jon Tester won this race because he is an excellent U.S. senator. And for six years he has been grinding out the nuts-and-bolts work of being a U.S. senator, taking care of veterans and taking care of constituent services,” said Democratic strategist Matt McKenna who helped advise both the Tester and Bullock campaigns.
Republicans bet too big that spending all their money on attack ads tying Obama to Tester would win the race, McKenna said.
“Montanans are smarter than that, and good for them,” he said.
Parker, the political scientist, said Republicans were overconfident because of their success in 2010. But Parker said much of that was driven by Democrats not voting that year.
Now, it is clear the GOP risks becoming the party of “old white men,” Parker said.
Exit polling reveals that Rehberg lost too much of his base — and it didn’t all go to Cox as it might seem. Parker said that the data indicates women, perhaps worried about health care issues, and elderly, likely concerned with Medicare, also left the base and voted for Tester.
The political scientist said Republicans will have to find a way to stop being against the entire social safety net, and find candidates who offer solutions that can collect a majority of voters.
“I do think they need to rethink things. They need to rethink where they are coming from. Republicans should have picked up a U.S. Senate seat. The terrain was to their advantage, and they didn’t do it,” Parker said.
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