Thursday, March 20, 2008


Spring is here and so is the filing deadline for Montana's 2008 election. Once again, the final days have brought surprises. Missoula accountant Patty Lovaas filed as a Republican for U.S. Senate, something I had told you two weeks ago.
But no one expected a 34-year-old Billings truck driver and former restaurant worker Shay Joshua Garnett to plunk down the filing fee for the same race. Garnett left only a post office box and an e-mail with the Secretary of State's office. And when I and others sent him a message asking for some basic information, his lengthy response could almost be called a manifesto. Long story short: he's God's chosen one who has been unappreciated, despite his lofty destiny to raise up nations.
Among his personality traits: dedication, aggressiveness, anger and tendencies toward both anti-social behavior and the use of swear words in conversation when he gets worked up. For my money, the Republican Senate primary could be the best--and most unpredictable--show of the primary season.

Garnett has expressed a severe dislike for Max Baucus. Which brings me to John Driscoll, the former Montana Public Service Commissioner who has joined the race for Denny Rehberg's seat in the U.S. House. Driscoll is one of those Democrats who dislikes Baucus intensely. (There are a few of them.)
He ran against him in 1978, giving up the chance for a repeat term as Speaker of the House in the state legislature, then did it again in 1990. Ten years later, he lost to Brian Schweitzer in the race to challenge then-Sen. Conrad Burns and has been on the sidelines since. This year, he's decided to change focus and go for Rehberg's House seat.
Make no mistake--Driscoll is no Bob Kelleher or Curly Thornton. He's not a one-issue guy or a Bible-toting moralist. I've always enjoyed my conversations with him. He's intelligent and articulate; he's just considered something of a flake. However, his name recognition might make his primary race against Jim Hunt a bit more interesting. Plus, if he wins, he could be just annoying enough to Rehberg to make the race worth following.
Speaking of interesting races, the battle for Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court is worth following closely. Attorney General Mike McGrath (who is term limited) had the field to himself for months but now has an opponent in Helena attorney Ron Waterman. McGrath has been a career public sector lawyer, first as Lewis & Clark County Attorney, then as AG.
Waterman has spent his career in the private sector, although he's been involved with enough high-profile litigation that people may recognize the name. It also won't hurt that his wife, Mignon, was a well-known state senator for many years.
In judicial races, candidates generally won't say what they'll do if elected, but McGrath can point to his many years as a law enforcer, his support as AG for gun ownership rights before the U.S. Supreme Court and the successful and historic negotations with ARCO on Clark Fork River Superfund sites. It's also worth noting that it was McGrath who successfully argued to make more of ARCO's settlement money available for river restoration projects last fall.
Waterman, meanwhile, can show a resume that shows a lot of high-profile litigation on all parts of the political spectrum. He's represented a despised mining company and fought the death penalty. He's done work for the ACLU and has been the attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline. He also has the support of retired Helena district judge Gordon Bennett and former Associated Press bureau chief John Kuglin, two of the state's open government heroes.
Watch this race, especially when questions arise about opening court deliberations to the media and the public.
Finally, the best political image I've seen this year comes from Montana's sister state of Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, where voters will elect a new governor and legislature March 23. It's--get ready for it--election day toilet paper. According to Mako Sakaguchi, Montana's representative in Kumamoto, the prefectural government has been distributing the paper in public places (presumably shopping arcades and other popular spots) to encourage people to vote. Assuming people actually use the paper for its intended purpose, it will be viewed regularly in the days prior to the vote. And after all, advertising depends on multiple impressions to work.
So, here's my message to Secretary of State Brad Johnson: In an election universe where electronics and computers play an ever-larger role, here's how to really make your mark as Montana's chief elections officer--with the ultimate paper ballot.
Just imagine the campaign slogan.
Happy spring.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Year of the Crossover?

What would it take for a Republican to vote for Hillary Clinton? Or for a Democrat to vote for a Republican for U.S. Senate? Answer: when your vote would help embarrass the opposing party without causing any real damage to your own.

With that as prelude, consider this scenario: It's June 3 and the polls are about to open for the statewide primary election. On the national scene, Clinton and Barack Obama remain locked in a desperate struggle for presidential convention delegates and, incredibly, Montana's could make the difference. Down the ballot, Democrats and Republicans alike have only a couple of contested statewide races to worry about and, on the Republican side, whoever wins the nomination for November's U.S. Senate race has a very uphill battle ahead.

So, why not vote on the other side and commit a bit of political sabotage? Since Montana is an "open primary" state, you can walk in and request either a Republican or Democratic party ballot. So, there's nothing to prevent voters on either side from crossing over in the hope of undermining a strong opponent or creating a victory for someone who would be an embarrassment to the opposing party.

Montana's Republican Party director Erik Iverson already has told me that if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Montana Republicans will flock to the polls in November to vote against her. That, he told me, could be bad news for Senator Max Baucus. Assuming the vote in the Democratic presidential preference primary will be close, would it be in Republicans' interest to cross over and vote for Clinton, as a way to encourage November turnout? Plus, if Clinton wins, Republicans will find any way possible to link Baucus with her.

Meanwhile, Democrats already know that Baucus and Governor Brian Schweitzer are unopposed in June. So is Jim Hunt, who will challenge U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg in the fall. Sure, there are contested races down the ballot, but the marquee races have no drama. So, why not try to influence who will challenge Baucus in the fall? A Bob Kelleher upset primary win, for instance, would be a poke in the eye of the GOP.

Admittedly, Democrats may look forward to the Clinton-Obama race so much that the idea of crossing over will not be attractive enough. And there may be enough party loyalty and interest in local and lesser statewide races that voters of both parties will stay true to their default leanings. But if Hollywood can imagine elections turning on more fanciful plots, and if Ron Paul supporters can stack some local Republican presidential caucuses, is some cross-party electoral sabotage unthinkable?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Candidate Who?

Max Baucus must be chuckling to himself. As the leading man of the Montana Democratic Party, with a multi-million dollar campaign war chest, and the title of Chairman of the Most Powerful Committee in the History of the American Congress (at least it seems that way sometimes) he must look at the roster of Republicans lining up for the June primary and think, “This is too easy.”
State Rep. Mike Lange of Billings, the only recognizable GOP hopeful so far, gave Baucus a ready-made television spot with the now-legendary obscenity-laced end-of-the-session rant in the House Republican Caucus last April. Six years ago, the Baucus campaign drove Mike Taylor right out of the race with footage Taylor probably thought he never would see again. This time, the Senator’s opposition research guys only have to go to YouTube to get Lange’s most embarrassing moment.
Meanwhile, the other three announced GOP candidates are political unknowns from the small business community, including the latest entrant, Missoula small business accountant Patty Lovaas. I spoke with her Thursday about why she’s running. “I don’t like what I see going on,” she said, pointing to concerns over small business, taxes, and the amount of money “out of state special interests” have contributed to the Baucus campaign.
Her written statement, which she intends to release when she files on St. Patrick’s Day, finishes with the following message for Baucus: “You have become a victim of the ‘political machine,’ she writes. “You have been bought by special interest groups and have lost sight of what and who you are representing. My message to you is Montana is not for sale.”
Having unknowns try to jump from private business into high office in Montana’s isn’t unusual. Over the years, I’ve found some of them to be interesting and engaging people. And frankly, I’ll take the “citizen candidate” to the Stan Jones “perpetual candidate” any day.