Montana’s Race for the Hill

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s political field endured a torrent of surprises leading up to the 2014 election cycle, beginning with the announcement by Montana’s longtime U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who in May revealed that he would not seek reelection.

In a race that could be a factor in determining which party controls the Senate, national focus immediately shifted to Montana’s bombastic former Gov. Brian Schweitzer as the strongest contender for the open seat. But when the larger-than-life Democrat made it clear he would not run, the high-profile race was conspicuously absent a high-profile candidate, leaving the field wide open.

The makeup of the 2014 House and Senate races finally took shape on Nov. 6 following the widely anticipated announcement by Montana’s freshman Republican Congressman Steve Daines, who declared his intentions to run at an event in Bozeman.

In launching his campaign, Daines framed Montana’s U.S. Senate race as pivotal for a GOP Senate takeover and positioned the state squarely in the national political spotlight.

Daines joins current Lt. Gov. John Walsh, a Democrat, in the hunt for a Senate seat that has been traditionally held by Democrats — Montana has elected only two Republicans to the U.S. Senate since 1913 — as well as former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who served alongside Schweitzer after serving five terms as a Republican state legislator.

While Walsh’s entrance into the race was met with relief by Montana Democrats struggling to find a viable nominee after Schweitzer and a slate of other high-profile state Democrats opted not to run, Bohlinger’s announcement, which he appeared to time to coincide with Daines’, adds a depth of political experience and name recognition previously lacking from the Democratic field.

The only other Democrat to enter the Senate race is Wilsall rancher and attorney Dirk Adams, a political unknown.

Meanwhile, the national battle to reclaim the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate raises high the profile of Montana’s 2014 contest, which Republicans see as a prime opportunity to seize the seat occupied by Baucus for 35 years.

It’s one of a handful of Senate races in which the winner could decide whether Republicans seize control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats, who currently hold a 55-45 majority. Leading up to Daines’ announcement, national political observers began rating Montana as a top GOP “pickup” opportunity. The Washington Post’s political blog “The Fix” ranked Montana’s Senate race as the third most important contest in the country, and one of the GOP’s best pickup opportunities of the election cycle.

With U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s, D-Mont., 2012 victory, Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate, while Daines, a former software company executive from Bozeman, won the U.S. House seat vacated by Denny Rehberg.

Walsh, a former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard who commanded an army battalion in Iraq, was in Schweitzer’s cabinet before being tapped by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock as lieutenant governor. He has received endorsements from Tester as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

While Baucus has not formally endorsed any candidates, he has said publicly that Walsh “would make an excellent Senator.”

Likewise, Baucus said John Lewis, his former state director and the lone Democratic candidate for Daines’ House seat, is “a tireless advocate for Montana, with a proven track-record working to improve services for our veterans, bring more jobs to our state and protect our outdoor heritage.”

Those endorsements don’t exclude the 77-year-old Bohlinger as a viable candidate for Montana Democrats, however, and his timely announcement, political savvy and reputation place him at the forefront of the race.

Montana State University Political Science Professor David Parker said the candidates’ profiles would begin taking shape in earnest as fundraising gets underway and they continue mounting their campaign war chests.

Last year’s U.S. Senate contest between Tester and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., saw nearly $20 million enter the state from candidate spending alone, and another $20 million to $30 million from outside groups.

While all of the candidates have a shot at success, he said Democrats face a significant challenge with Schweitzer out of the picture. And with Daines already reporting a robust fundraising quarter, Parker said it was critical for Democrats to raise enough money to build a lofty campaign platform.

“Clearly the best candidate was Schweitzer,” Parker said. “Daines is a strong candidate but he is not unbeatable. Walsh has some good attributes and attractive qualities – he has a military background, he’s from Butte, he has a good haircut. His story is great but no one will hear it if he doesn’t raise enough money to carry his message. And Bohlinger’s biggest weakness is his age.”

But Bohlinger also enjoys the advantage of being affiliated with Schweitzer, and he appears to be crafting a campaign strategy that serves as an analog to a Schweitzer senate run.

“He is clearly taking a page out of Brian’s book. He’s saying a lot of colorful things, he’s well known. Schweitzer has said that if the election were held today Bohlinger would win. And he’s right,” said Parker, who is currently writing a book focusing on the 2012 Montana Senate race between Tester and Rehberg.

Democrats have taken aim at Daines for his support of the U.S. government shutdown in an effort to gut Obamacare. He later voted to end the congressional budget stalemate, but not before Democrats dubbed him “Shutdown Steve.”

“The shutdown worked against Daines in two ways,” Parker said. “It delayed his announcement and it associated him with the things that Montanans hate about Washington.”

Daines and Walsh both have room to define themselves leading up to the primary, he added.

Parker said he views the House race as a “free-for-all” contest, in some ways making it even more interesting than the Senate race.

“It’s anyone’s game,” he said. “Anything can happen because most of these guys are unknown. They have all served in the Legislature and they have all run successful campaigns. I think whoever raises the most money the fastest and gets known the quickest wins.”

The race for Montana’s 2014 U.S. Senate seat is expected to be one of the premier contests in the nation as Republicans attempt to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats, who currently have a 55-45 majority. Republicans must capture six seats to reclaim the Senate majority and view Montana as one of their best pickup opportunities. But Montana Democrats have traditionally occupied the Senate. And the 2014 race still hasn’t begun in earnest.

Democratic primary

John Bohlinger, 77
Former Lt. Governor

Former Lt. Governor John Bohlinger, 77, a Marine veteran and five-term Republican, served in both Montana’s House and Senate before upsetting the GOP by joining former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s successful gubernatorial campaigns in 2004 and 2008. He announced his bid for Montana’s open U.S. Senate seat after becoming rankled at the government shutdown, and intends to run as a progressive moderate.

John Walsh, 53
Lt. Governor

Lt. Governor John Walsh, 53, was elected alongside Gov. Steve Bullock in 2012 and previously worked for the Montana National Guard for 30 years. He led the 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment in combat in Iraq and was appointed Adjutant General in 2008.

Dirk Adams, 62
Wilsall Rancher

Dirk Adams, 62, a Wilsall rancher and attorney, was the first Democrat to declare himself a candidate when he announced his U.S. Senate bid in August. It will be his first run for political office. He earned his law degree at Harvard University in 1976 and has been ranching in the Shields River Valley since 1984.

Republican primary

Steve Daines, 51
U.S. Representative

Steve Daines, 51, has served as Montana’s lone U.S. Representative for less than a year, but is widely considered a top contender for a senate race that will be among the most carefully watched in the nation as one of the GOP’s best pickup opportunities of the election cycle.

David Leaser
Air Traffic Manager

David Leaser, of Kalispell, is air traffic manager at Glacier Park International Airport. He’s running for the Republican ticket as a political unknown and a low-profile candidate emphasizing conservative values. A retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer, he supports the principles of the Tea Party.

The race for Montana’s lone House seat has been a fluid affair as potential candidates waited in the wings for Daines to make an announcement and shape the landscape of the 2014 election cycle. Some prospective candidates, including two from the Flathead Valley, withdrew their names while others have stated their intention to shift their focus from the Senate race to the House race given the early swagger of Daines’ campaign.

Democratic primary

John Lewis, 35
Former Baucus State Director

John Lewis, 35, of Helena, is a former top aide to Baucus. He worked with the retiring senator for 12 years, serving on Baucus’ Senate staff from 2003-2008 as a legislative assistant, as Baucus’ deputy state director from 2009-2010 and as his state director from 2010 until August 2013.

Republican primary

Ryan Zinke, 52
Former Whitefish State Representative

Ryan Zinke, 52, a former Republican state legislator from Whitefish, announced his candidacy for Montana’s lone House seat in October. Zinke served as a U.S. Navy SEAL commander from 1985 to 2008, a state senator representing Whitefish from 2009 to 2011 and as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2012, during Neil Livingstone’s gubernatorial campaign.

Matt Rosendale, 53
Glendive State Senator

Matt Rosendale, 53, a state senator from Glendive, kicked off his campaign for the U.S. House in October. A rancher and developer, Rosendale was elected to serve Montana State Senate District 38 in 2010 and District 19 in 2012.

Corey Stapleton, 46
Former Billings State Senator

Corey Stapleton, 46, of Billings, is a former state senator who served from 2001 to 2009 and ran as a candidate for Governor in 2012. He lost to Rick Hill in the Republican primary but won Yellowstone and Treasure counties. He initially said he would run for the Senate seat, but tipped his hand to the House when Daines announced his candidacy.

Champ Edmunds, 50
Missoula State Representative

Champ Edmunds, 50, of Missoula, was elected to the Montana Legislature to represent House District 100 in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012. Edmunds initially threw his hat in the ring for the U.S. Senate race but said he would switch to the House if Daines announced his Senate candidacy. Now he’s not so sure, and is a possible candidate for either race.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.