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Posted at 1:07 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

Can Democrats steal a House seat in Montana?

By Rachel Weiner

The road south out of Lewistown, Montana. Washington Post Photo by Michael Williamson

The news that six-term Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) will challenge Sen. Jon Tester (D) in 2012 is bad news for Democrats hoping to keep their Senate majority.

Rehberg's planned announcement means a difficult Senate race for Democrats in a state that has tilted toward Republicans at the presidential level for years.

But, Rehberg's attempt to move up to the Senate could give Democrats a chance to pick up his House seat.

Democrats haven't won a House seat in Montana since the state lost its second district in the early 1990s and Rehberg typically wins with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Democratic strategists argue, however, that Rehberg's considerable personal popularity masks what would otherwise be a competitive at-large seat.

Despite Montana's conservative bent, there is some evidence that Democrats can win statewide races.

The party, for example, had a banner year in 2008: Governor Brian Schweitzer (65 percent), Secretary of State Linda McCullough (51 percent), Attorney General Steve Bullock (53 percent), Auditor Monica Lindein (54 percent) and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau (54 percent) all won.

The party has had some success -- albeit it more limited -- at the federal level. In 2006, Tester eked out a win over Sen. Conrad Burns (R) and in 2008 Sen. Max Baucus (D) was reelected with over 70 percent of the vote.

In the 2008 presidential race, President Obama came close to beating Arizona Sen. John McCain, losing by 11,000 votes out of nearly 500,000 cast. (George W. Bush won the state by 20 points in 2004.)

The closest Democrats have come to winning the state's at-large House seat was in 2000 when Rep. Rick Hill (R) retired. Rehberg took 51 percent of the vote against then state Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan (D) in the open seat contest.

With the seat now open again, state Rep. Franke Wilmer is hoping to get a jump on the competition having already announced her bid for the seat. Other Democrats who could run include state Senate Minority Whip Kim Gillan, state Sen. Larry Jent, state Sen. Kendall Van Dyk (D-Billings), and Missoula lawyer Tyler Gernant.

Some Democrat hold out hope that Schweitzer, who will be term-limited out of the governor's mansion in 2012, will jump in. But after being talked up as a potential vice presidential candidate and getting a prominent speaking spot at the 2008 Democratic national convention, it seems very unlikely that Schweitzer would be interested in serving in the House minority.

On the GOP side, Bozeman businessman Steve Daines, who announced a run against Tester before Rehberg jumped in, has changed gears and will run for the House. National security analyst Neil Livingstone and State Sen. Roy Brown (R-Billings) are other possibilities.

"You'd have to call it lean Republican," argued Republican pollster Bob Moore while acknowledging that Rehberg's absence made the race competitive. (Moore polls for Rehberg.) "Just look at how they voted for president and how they've been voting." Republicans swept the House legislature in 2010, winning a two-thirds majority. They won the state Senate too, amassing their largest majority since the 1960s.

While the White House is signaling its plan to keep the playing field as broad as possible, it may struggle to approximate his near-victory in 2008. Montana hasn't voted for a Democrat at the presidential level since 1992 -- when Ross Perot's third party candidacy allowed Bill Clinton to carry the state with just 38 percent of the vote.

With 61 districts that President Obama carried currently held by Republicans, it's hard to see Montana -- even in an open seat scenario -- as a top tier pickup opportunity for Democrats. Of course, it's early in the election cycle so Democrats still have time to make a serious run at it.

By Rachel Weiner  | February 3, 2011; 1:07 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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