I had the chance last week to sit down with the chairs of Montana's two major political parties. Much of what they said was not a surprise, but some was. To wit:
*Democratic Party Chair Dennis McDonald admitted he didn't know much about some of his party's lesser candidates--namely, those ostensibly hoping to upset either Brian Schweitzer for governor or Jim Hunt in the primary for U.S. Representative. Sure, Don Pogreba, William Fischer, Robert Candee and John Driscoll essentially have wasted their filing fees by not mounting actual campaigns, I'd have thought that McDonald could have said something constructive about their presence on the ballot.
*In contrast, Republican Party Chair Erik Iverson said he was pleased at the variety of GOP candidates vying for the right to challenge U.S. Senator Max Baucus in the fall. One presumes that Mike Lange of Billings will earn the right to face Baucus, but anything is possible. Iverson also acknowledged that while GOP candidate for governor Larry Steele will not win the nomination, he is "a serious guy." At least he threw him a bone on behalf of the party.
*McDonald also offered a surprising opinion regarding Libertarian Stan Jones' place in the fall campaign for governor. When I asked him what we can expect from Schweitzer and Roy Brown in debates after June 3, McDonald added Jones' name to the mix, saying he will play a Ron Paul-type role and take votes away from Brown. The new Lee Newspapers poll seems to contradict that idea, giving Schweitzer a comfortable lead and giving Jones a very small per centage.
*Along with predicting victory for his ballot-toppers, Iverson also spoke candidly about why Denny Rehberg must win his bid for a sixth term in Congress. Essentially, the party needs him to carry down-ticket candidates on his coattails. Translation: as Rehberg goes, so will the party. Meanwhile, when I asked Rehberg recently about being the titular head of the party, he was hardly enthusiastic, as if it were just one more item on a long list of responsibilities.
When is the last time the mayor of a Montana city has played a significant role as endorser for statewide candidates? Especially a mayor who technically is a non-partisan office-holder? Missoula's John Engen not only helped introduce Barack Obama in Missoula in April, he's in Attorney General candidate Steve Bullock's television commercials. Meanwhile, his support of county commissioner hopeful Dennis Daneke has spawned a contretemps with Daneke's Democratic rival Jeff Patterson over campaign signs in a construction zone.
If Engen's endorsement really is important (even if only in Missoula) then could it be the state party has its eye on him for bigger things? The elections of Schweitzer and Jon Tester certainly have altered the image of what Montanans think a successful candidate looks like; perhaps Engen's sizable good humor and his obvious enjoyment of being a very public mayor would overcome any negative first impression from non-Missoulians over his girth and goatee.
(Random thought--speaking of facial hair, when is the last time two candidates for statewide office both had it? Between Denny Rehberg's black mustache and Jim Hunt's white beard, Montanans haven't had so much razor-free space in a big race in probably 80 years or more.)
BEING ON TIME:
What a spring it's been for Montana Democrats. But beyond the euphoria at having honest-to-goodness presidential candidates in the state on multiple occasions, should voters be upset at Hillary Clinton (and her husband, Bill) for being chronically late? The Senator kept her Missoula and Pablo rally audiences waiting for the better part of an hour; Bill did the same in his Missoula appearance. By contrast, Barack Obama's Missoula appearance was right on time, with better warm-up. So far, I haven't spoken with anyone who is making his or her choice based on timeliness and event organization but, as someone whose life revolves around being on time and making deadlines, I'm irked when political events start late.
Note to candidates: You may still win my vote with substance, but please try to respect my time.