If it seems as if every liberal and his brother is moving to Montana, that’s probably because he is.
Democrats sense that a new era of opportunity is on the rise for their party in the Treasure State, which has led several national Democratic operatives to pack up the car and head west to get in on the ground floor.
Last year was good to Democrats — they nearly swept all statewide offices, capped by the election of Brian Schweitzer as governor, they wrested control of the state Senate from Republicans and forced a tie in the state House, giving them the Speakership because they control the governor’s mansion.
Now they believe they can knock off Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) in 2006 and show Democrats across the country how to win elections on supposedly unfriendly turf.
“How politics works is a lot different out here than it is on the East Coast,” said David Sirota, a former national Democratic operative. “In Washington, D.C., there’s the Democratic Leadership Council versus the liberal [wing], but out here there’s a populist tradition that doesn’t really relate to that paradigm and I think that’s why the Democrats of late have been successful. They don’t play the stereotypes.”
Sirota could be considered a pioneer: the former Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee moved to Montana early this year to work on a book and help launch the Progressive Legislative Action Network, an organization that aims to bolster Democratic initiatives at the state level.
He was quickly joined by Matt McKenna, a Montana native and veteran of several Senate campaigns; Jim Farrell, former spokesman to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.); Andy LaVigne, who worked on the 2004 presidential campaign of former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.); and most recently Joel Barkin, former press secretary to Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Furthermore, Montana native Jim Messina, who worked for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), has returned home in the sense that he is now chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), though he still works on Capitol Hill.
Part of it is quality of life: “Everybody who’s from Montana, as soon as they leave, they start trying to get back,” McKenna explained. “It’s the greatest place on earth and to be able to work in Democratic politics there, I can’t think of a better job.”
But the possibility of helping Democrats regain their footing is the real allure, most conceded.
“I think it’s a very exciting place to be right now,” said McKenna, who has signed on as communications director for the 2006 Democratic coordinated effort in Montana. “We have a U.S. Senator in Max Baucus who led the fight to defeat plans to privatize Social Security; we have a new governor who is doing a great job of righting the ship and bringing what was a very divided Montana together, and we also have a very exciting U.S. Senate race and a great chance of knocking off an incumbent.”
Farrell left a consulting gig in California in July to become executive director of the state Democratic Party — and for the chance to beat Burns.
“This Senate race offers the best opportunity in the country to take back the Senate and to really make a difference in the country,” Farrell said. “We will beat Conrad Burns if we run an excellent campaign next — year and we will.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has marked Burns as a top 2006 target and showing how vulnerable it believes he is, the committee already kicked in money toward anti-Burns television ads that ran in August.
Beating Burns is not the only appeal Montana holds, however. Most of the former national operatives believe Montana offers Democrats a road map.
“I think we’re reinventing in some ways the way Democrats’ win,” Farrell said. “And Brian Schweitzer is the great example of that and that’s exciting because elsewhere in the country Democrats haven’t figured out, maybe, how to win the big ones anymore. But here in Montana, there’s something unique happening.”
While many of the young turks are discovering Montana’s Democratic potential for the first time, former longtime Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) says Montana has always been ripe for the Democrats’ picking.
“Some people have the mistaken notion that Montana for the first time has a purple tint to it,” Williams said, noting that many political observers only recently shifted Montana into the category of tossup states. “We sent a lot of Democrats including [former Senate Majority Leader] Mike Mansfield, and myself, to Washington. I tend to think that we’re rediscovering it. There is an upsurge throughout the Rocky Mountain states in Democratic gains. Not too long ago they did not have one Democratic governor, now half do. We’ve been picking up legislative seats, doing better at Congressional races and Democratic presidential contenders are doing better.”
Williams, who is now with the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, said the basis for Montana’s economy has dramatically shifted, giving Democrats new opportunities as well.
The Rocky Mountain states “are moving from an extractive culture and industry to one of conservation and restoration,” he said. “Those environmental concerns and the fact that cash registers are beginning to ring on green is critical to the fortunes of the Democratic Party.”
Williams said the opportunity is there and that both parties should recognize it if they want to be viable nationally, because the West is the fastest-growing region in the country.
“One party takes us for granted and one hasn’t understood us,” he said, referring to the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. “Republicans think if they put on a Stetson [hat], they’ll win and Democrats think if they ski in Sun Valley, we’ll vote for them.”
Sirota said Montana Democrats have sensed the change and are capitalizing on it.
“Montana is a place that I think national Democrats have long ago written off and forgotten but it’s a place where a new kind of politics is happening that breaks a lot of conventions,” he said. “What Schweitzer and the Democrats have done out here is not traditional politics in the terms of Democratic and Republican breakdown that we think of … Democrats out here are forging new kinds of coalitions — coalitions between hunters and anglers and conservationists, for example, between small businesses and their workers — it’s not the environment versus [the] energy” industry.
McKenna said he hopes that Democrats will see what is afoot in Montana and join them.
“Montanans are very welcoming, I expect there will be others,” he said. “I’d like to see Montana operatives start to come home as I did and use this opportunity to do that.”