The Progressive Frontier

The governor of the Big Sky state has important lessons to teach Democrats across the nation

Matt Singer

Montana governor Brian Schweitzer based his agenda on conversations with ordinary citizens.

Last Novem­ber 2, as pro­gres­sives watched state after state turn red in the pres­i­den­tial race – and in Sen­ate races that were sup­posed to be close – some­thing fun­ny was hap­pen­ing in Mon­tana. The state that went for Bush by 20 per­cent hand­ed a sol­id vic­to­ry to a new Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor, 49-year-old ranch­er Bri­an Schweitzer. And, unlike oth­er elect­ed red-state Democ­rats, it quick­ly became clear he was not going to be alone at the top.

Along with the gov­er­nor­ship, Mon­tana Democ­rats seized three oth­er impor­tant statewide exec­u­tive offices, held their major­i­ty on the state’s Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion, took a major­i­ty in the State Sen­ate and fought their way to a 50 – 50 draw in the State House.

Since then, Democ­rats across the coun­try have turned to Mon­tana for answers and hope. Some crit­ics den­i­grate Schweitzer’s vic­to­ry, claim­ing that a red-state Demo­c­rat must sim­ply be a Repub­li­can lite. But that analy­sis falls flat: Schweitzer is a strong pro­po­nent of choice, as well as an advo­cate for the envi­ron­ment and for mid­dle-class Mon­tanans. And those who have seen the out­spo­ken Schweitzer chal­lenge the Bush admin­is­tra­tion in the press late­ly real­ize: Real Democ­rats, not faux Repub­li­cans, won in Montana.

If Democ­rats can suc­ceed this well in Mon­tana, they can win any­where. The ques­tion is how.

A decade ago, the Mon­tana Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty began a peri­od of rebuild­ing. The Repub­li­can Par­ty held the governor’s office and con­trolled both cham­bers of the leg­is­la­ture by over­whelm­ing majori­ties. The Democ­rats com­mit­ted them­selves to the basics. They engaged in a strate­gic plan­ning process that defined clear, attain­able goals. They focused on recruit­ing can­di­dates who would work hard and win. And they trained can­di­dates and vol­un­teers in the orga­niz­ing mod­el of grass­roots advo­ca­cy groups. Democ­rats soon start­ed mak­ing gains in leg­isla­tive races.

But 2000 was to prove a bad year for Mon­tana Democ­rats. With Al Gore run­ning, the Democ­rats lost the top-of-the-tick­et race by 25 per­cent. Bush’s coat­tails proved too much to over­come down-tick­et and strong, expe­ri­enced Democ­rats lost their races for the governor’s office and for Montana’s lone House seat.

But nei­ther of these test­ed can­di­dates made the best show­ing for a Demo­c­rat in Mon­tana that year. That title went to Schweitzer, who at that point was an upstart ranch­er from north­west Mon­tana who start­ed his cam­paign for U.S. Sen­ate with zero per­cent name recog­ni­tion and end­ed it as the pop­ulist hero who took seniors to Cana­da for cheap­er pre­scrip­tion drugs.

Meet­ing the man, it is clear how he grew in the pub­lic mind. Schweitzer is a big man, ath­let­ic, and ready with a hand­shake and a smile for any­one who greets him. He talks loud­ly, plain­ly and quick­ly, with ideas flow­ing out of his mouth at near break­neck pace. He works hard, sleeps lit­tle and is known for read­ing Montana’s news­pa­pers as they become avail­able online in the wee hours of the morning. 

When a reporter from an inde­pen­dent week­ly news­pa­per vis­it­ed his ranch to write a pro­file, Schweitzer took him shoot­ing. After he won the guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tion, Schweitzer threw a mas­sive inau­gur­al ball with three venues and more than 3,000 guests. When Butte, Montana’s famous M&M bar reopened, Schweitzer stood in the mid­dle of the bar at 10 a.m., down­ing a shot of Jameson’s.

Five years lat­er, when he is asked what he could have done dif­fer­ent­ly in 2000, Schweitzer shrugs off the defeat. That race against [Repub­li­can Sen­ate oppo­nent Con­rad] Burns,” he says, was prob­a­bly an unwinnable race because of how well Bush did.” Nev­er­the­less, he brought the race to with­in 4 per­cent and made a name for himself.

Clos­ing the gap

Both Schweitzer and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty walked away from 2000 real­iz­ing they would have to do more in order to win the big races again.

We ran a good race and had good can­di­dates,” explains Brad Mar­tin, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mon­tana Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. One thing that became clear was the impact of the pres­i­den­tial race on the state races. Essen­tial­ly, our statewide can­di­dates made up a 25-point deficit. That means about 20 per­cent of Bush’s vot­ers were cross­ing over and vot­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic in one of those races.”

It became the party’s job to nar­row the mar­gin in the pres­i­den­tial race. So, Mar­tin says, the Democ­rats decid­ed to make sure that their Mon­tana can­di­dates did not fall prey to nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic stereo­types. They sought out key con­stituen­cies by start­ing agri­cul­ture, small busi­ness and sports­man round­ta­bles. The par­ty hired a com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor to move beyond the basics of press releas­es. And the par­ty recom­mit­ted itself to build­ing its grass­roots base – cen­tral com­mit­tees and volunteers.

Mon­tana Democ­rats real­ized they had anoth­er prob­lem, accord­ing to Mar­tin. Vot­ers didn’t know that Democ­rats had an eco­nom­ic plan. The par­ty did a statewide lis­ten­ing tour,” he says. Leg­isla­tive lead­ers crossed the state to meet with busi­ness and labor lead­ers and com­pile an eco­nom­ic plan. We took it to small towns, large towns. We lit­er­al­ly laid out a 22-point plan.” 

Mean­while, Schweitzer start­ed run­ning for gov­er­nor vir­tu­al­ly the day after he lost his race for the Sen­ate. For a year and a half,” he says, I read all the news­pa­pers in Mon­tana, read the let­ters to the edi­tor. When I read a cool let­ter, I would write them a let­ter and tell them that. So many can­di­dates think that two weeks before the elec­tion, they’re some­how going to gin up peo­ple to write let­ters for them. We’d build rela­tion­ships with peo­ple who already wrote let­ters rather than try­ing to get new peo­ple to write let­ters to the editor.”

He drove across the state, meet­ing peo­ple in rur­al areas and ask­ing what they need­ed from gov­ern­ment. Those dis­cus­sions result­ed in an agen­da that includ­ed health­care reform, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and a new approach to high­er edu­ca­tion with an increased empha­sis on com­mu­ni­ty col­leges and tech­ni­cal schools. Schweitzer then took his new issue agen­da and crossed the state again, giv­ing speech­es that nev­er fell into wonk speak. Instead, Schweitzer ran on val­ues, deliv­er­ing a talk about his fam­i­ly home­steading in Mon­tana, build­ing a church and a com­mu­ni­ty with their friends and neigh­bors. He talked about being a Bob­cat (a grad­u­ate of Mon­tana State). He talked about talk­ing to people.

He con­tin­ued fundrais­ing at a fast clip, rais­ing more than any oth­er can­di­date for gov­er­nor in Montana’s his­to­ry, despite refus­ing PAC mon­ey – anoth­er deci­sion he cred­it­ed to talk­ing to peo­ple. He toured the state to find a lieu­tenant gov­er­nor. In the process, he talked to dozens of Mon­tanans, peo­ple who rarely get one-on-one time with a major can­di­date for gov­er­nor. Most of them, he says, told him that they did not want to be lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, they sim­ply want­ed to talk to some­one who could change things. 

Ulti­mate­ly, Schweitzer’s real choice for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor made waves. When he tapped State Sen­a­tor John Bohlinger, a Repub­li­can, the state GOP lashed out while Democ­rats around the state scratched their heads. Bohlinger is a pro­gres­sive­ly-mind­ed Repub­li­can, a rare breed in nation­al pol­i­tics. In his home­town of Billings, Bohlinger was well known for his tru­ly com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vatism – deliv­er­ing pas­sion­ate speech­es against the death penal­ty, hate crimes and sex traf­fick­ing. And while the deci­sion raised hack­les among some par­ty stal­warts, the bipar­ti­san tick­et told many Mon­tanans that this was a cam­paign unin­ter­est­ed in partisanship.

The Mon­tana Kaimin, a dai­ly col­lege paper, edi­to­ri­al­ized that Schweitzer’s deci­sion shook up Montana’s all too par­ti­san polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture” and Chuck John­son, the dean of Mon­tana polit­i­cal jour­nal­ism, referred to a TV ad empha­siz­ing the bipar­ti­san tick­et as the most effec­tive of the cam­paign year.

But Schweitzer’s team nev­er con­fused com­mon sense with mealy-mouthing or bipar­ti­san­ship with timid­i­ty. In the wan­ing days of the elec­tion, the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion (RGA) ham­mered Schweitzer with an ad accus­ing him of bogus busi­ness deals. The RGA had already been kicked out of oth­er states for decep­tive adver­tis­ing,” says Mar­tin. At the last minute, they ran an ad with a man who had tried to deceive mon­ey out of the Schweitzers, a wealthy landown­er por­tray­ing her­self as a des­ti­tute wid­ow, and the cousin of the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for Gov­er­nor.” The three Mon­tanans alleged bad busi­ness activ­i­ty on Schweitzer’s part, but failed to dis­close their own con­flicts of interest.

The Mon­tana Democ­rats hit back with an ad high­light­ing the fact that Schweitzer’s accusers had felony crim­i­nal records, as well as fam­i­ly and busi­ness con­nec­tions to the Repub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor. The attack ad fell flat on its face.

We got a lot of pos­i­tive feed­back on that,” Mar­tin says. Half of it was hit­ting home [Schweitzer’s] pop­ulist mes­sage and half of it was expos­ing these peo­ple for who they were.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the hard work paid off. Schweitzer was elect­ed as the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor in 16 years. His approval rat­ing is slow­ly march­ing upward, approach­ing 60 per­cent, while Bush has slumped to 53 per­cent approval in this red state.

Observers some­times sum­ma­rize the lessons learned as fol­lows: Work hard for 10 years build­ing a par­ty; start the cam­paign ear­ly; find an out­stand­ing, hard-work­ing, telegenic, charis­mat­ic can­di­date; fundraise like mad; craft a great mes­sage; ham­mer the mes­sage; and pray. Even with this near­ly per­fect storm, Schweitzer won with just a 4 per­cent majority.

But oth­er lessons are more con­crete and there are some signs that Democ­rats are begin­ning to imple­ment them nationally:

  • Fight every­where. Schweitzer didn’t write off the rur­al areas of Mon­tana that have recent­ly become Repub­li­can strong­holds. He cam­paigned statewide, win­ning two coun­ties typ­i­cal­ly lost by Democ­rats and nar­row­ing the mar­gin in dozens of others.
  • Fight back. When Schweitzer got Swift Boat­ed,” his cam­paign staffers didn’t sit silent­ly. They hit back fast and hard. And in his first months in office, Schweitzer didn’t refrain from crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent who received more votes than he did. He aggres­sive­ly crit­i­cized Bush on a num­ber of fronts. Now he’s more pop­u­lar than the pres­i­dent among Mon­tana voters.
  • Actions speak loud­er than words. Unlike oth­er Democ­rats who rev­el in meta-analy­sis or the­o­riz­ing over val­ues, Schweitzer sim­ply did it. Rather than say­ing he was a real Mon­tanan, he talked about his home­steading ances­tors. Rather than talk­ing about reclaim­ing the flag, Schweitzer just did it – promi­nent­ly on his Web site and on pens the cam­paign dis­trib­uted. And both Schweitzer and the Mon­tana Democ­rats had plans. They just real­ized that hav­ing the plans was more impor­tant than talk­ing about them non-stop.

If Democ­rats across the coun­try learn these lessons, they’ll be on the right road to win­ning Amer­i­ca back.

Matt Singer, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor for the Pro­gres­sive States Net­work, is a writer and activist in Montana.
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