Montana Senate Race: Far from Over

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who was expected to be the Democratic candidate to replace retiring Democrat Max Baucus, announced today that he will not run for the U.S. Senate. This is not good news for Democrats; if Schweitzer had run and there were no new and damaging negatives that hadn’t already been raised during his governor campaigns he may have won comfortably. But the response on Twitter to the announcement was, for the most part, credulous acceptance of the GOP spin that there’s no way Democrats can hold this seat in “deep red Montana.”

That’s BS.

We’ve heard this story before. When North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad announced he would not run for reelection in 2012, pundits generally declared the seat a Democratic lost cause. This blog was one of the only places that in November 2011, when she announced her candidacy, argued that now-Senator Heidi Heitkamp had a great shot of holding the seat. It’s worth remembering this, and also considering the ways in which Montana is even more promising than was North Dakota.

First of all, contrary to the spin of the Republicans and the assumptions of the let’s-never-actually-look-at-data-and-history pundits, Democrats have been doing quite well in Montana for several elections now. After two terms with Schweitzer as governor, in 2012 Montanans went Democratic for the third straight time, electing Attorney General Steve Bullock as governor. Republicans captured the open AG seat, but incumbent Democrats retained the Secretary of State, State Auditor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Of course, Democrat John Tester was also reelected to the U.S. Senate. Add in the GOP-held at large Congressional seat and Baucus’ Senate seat, and of the eight statewide elective offices, Democrats hold six.

But could the recent Democratic success be a fluke? No. In fact, in historical context, it would be a fluke if a Republican won the seat held by Baucus; Democrats have held that Senate seat since 1913. That’s right, Democrats have held this seat for 101 straight years.  Tester defeated three-term incumbent Republican Conrad Burns for the other seat. Since 1911 only one other Republican ever held that seat, and he held it only one term.

One might argue that being a Democrat is a problem in a state that Obama lost twice. But at the presidential level, Montana has gone Republican in every election since 1948 except the 1964 LBJ landslide and in 1992, when Bill Clinton squeaked through with 37%. During all these losses, Democratic senate candidates have continued to win and win and win.

Even if you limit the analysis to recent years, the situation in Montana is not inherently dire for Democrats. In 2008 Obama lost Montana by only 2 points, his second narrowest loss, after Missouri. Against Romney he did significantly worse, losing by 14 points. (The big swing may be partially due to Montana having the sixth highest percentage of Mormons in the U.S..) But in recent years Democrats have won Senate seats in numerous states that went against Obama, including Alaska, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and North Carolina, and they came close in Kentucky (2004) and Tennessee (2006).

It’s also possible, if there’s anything to this CNN report, that research was unearthing real problems for Schweitzer. While on paper Schweitzer was obviously the strongest potential Democratic candidate, it’s possible that his withdrawal from consideration actually strengthens Democratic chances by removing a candidate with a ticking time bomb strapped to his candidacy.

Schweitzer is out of the race, but Montana is by no means so Republican that the Democrats are doomed. What will probably matter is what often decides elections: the national political environment, the strength of the candidates, and the effectiveness of their campaigns. Handicapping those factors today is impossible, so everyone should just wait a while before declaring the Montana seat a GOP pickup.

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3 Responses to Montana Senate Race: Far from Over

  1. Consider the four elections Republicans did win in Montana during that time:

    1946: Huge year for Republicans – not unlike 1994 or 2010.
    1988: GHW Bush’s coattails.
    1994: 1994, enough said.
    2000: Narrow win by a two-term incumbent over a then-unknown Schweitzer in a year when Bush won MT by 25 points.

    • Dana Houle says:

      Good point, to which I’ll add that three of those wins were by Conrad Burns, who twice got by with only 51%. In contrast, Baucus ran six times. In 1996 he beat Dennis Rehberg by only 5 points–making Rehberg a loser to both of the state’s senators–but every other race he won by over 10 points, and three of the last four were blowouts: 39 points in 1990, 31 points in 2002 and 46 points in 2008.

      MT-AL has been held by Republicans since 1996, but even that’s worth an asterisk, since, while his voting record was mostly straight party-line, Rehberg cultivated an image of an independent-thinking moderate.

  2. It’s also possible, if there’s anything to this CNN report, that research was unearthing real problems for Schweitzer.

    What problems were they that couldn’t have been unearthed during his 8 years as Governor?

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