40 Days to Election Day: Montana
The state of Montana has a full slate of offices up for election this year: President, governor, Senator and House member. Like many of the mountain states out west, the last time Montana went with the Democratic nominee was in 1964 with Lyndon Johnson. Let me clarify that: Montana did vote for Clinton in 1992 by a slim margin with a third party making a good run that year. There is no third party in 2012 and they voted for McCain in 2008. Given the Obama backslide in 2012, Romney will win this state’s 3 electoral votes.
For Governor, popular Democratic incumbent Brian Schweitzer is term limited creating an open race. Schweitzer is a name being circulated for a possible presidential candidate in 2016, so we need to keep an eye on his future. For the Democratic Party, state attorney general Steve Bullock will run. His tenure as attorney general was highlighted by successful drunk driving campaigns and crackdowns on child sexual predators and monopolistic activity in the railroad industry. Most importantly, he successfully defended the state’s ban on corporate donations to state office candidates before the Montana Supreme Court, thus upholding a 100-year-old law. However, the injunction against implementing the law was upheld by the US Supreme Court- thus invalidating the law- in a per curium decision. Technically a 9-0 decision, they are usually issued without an opinion. However, this one was accompanied by a written statement indicating that the original 5-4 conservative coalition on the Court that decided Citizen’s United was holding strong. Although there were the four votes to grant review of this case, there is no way that coalition was cracking, thus the review was denied. Therefore, the law remains effectively struck down.
Former US representative Rick Hill served two terms in Congress before being replaced by current Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2000. During his four years in Congress, he sponsored 32 bills of which 22 never made it out of committee. The main thrust of his advocacy in Congress involved natural resources. Polling is rather scarce in this race, but most of it shows a narrow victory for Bullock and this writer would have to agree. Thus, in Montana, the Governor’s office stays in Democratic hands.
The Senate race is highly contested between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and current Republican Representative Denny Rehberg. Tester is, admittedly, not an ideologue as a Democrat and is more of a centrist based on his bill sponsorship. This is mainly motivated by the fact the state is conservative leaning to start with. Rehberg, on the other hand, has been touting his independence as a legislator noting that he voted against the Bush TARP bill and other Republican measures during his tenure in the House. Most importantly though, he has distanced himself from the Paul Ryan budget and voted against it in Congress claiming it would destroy the Medicare program. Hence, it appears as if both candidates are painting themselves as not moving to the political center, but BEING in the political center. Fortunately, both have been in Congress for a time so that one can see if the rhetoric is backed up by action. A sober analysis from a variety of sources would indicate that Tester can make the better claim as being closer to the center than Rehberg. Whether that is enough to propel him back to the Senate remains to be seen. Current polling has the race exceptionally close with Rehberg leading but within the margin of error. A lot will depend on how far down the ticket Romney’s coat tails extend and how much of a change in Washington the voters of Montana think is needed. Since they are both incumbents, they have both been decent fundraisers. And the breakdown of the source of those funds is basically even. However, as election day draws closer, I fully expect an advertising blitz in favor of Rehberg. Personally, I believe Romney’s coat tails will pull Rehberg to victory at the end. One very important point: In Montana, the Libertarian candidate (Dan Cox this year) traditionally pulls 3-5% of the vote. That vote must be watched as it may be the difference that pushes Tester back to the Senate.
In the lone House race, an open one since Rehberg is running for Senate, state senator Kim Gillan will run for the Democrats while businessman Steven Daines will run for the Republicans. Gillan is touting her experience in the Montana legislature as her top selling point. On an issue of importance to the people of Montana- Obamacare- she has been cagey stating that it was an important first step and that it should be built upon and fixed rather than scrapped altogether. And on one social issue, while she touts the wonders of motherhood on the personal level, she has received 100% ratings from every pro-choice group out there. Daines is not a total unknown in state politics as he served as Mike Huckabee’s state director in 2008 when he also ran for Lt. Governor in a losing cause that year. Daines is calling for simplification of the tax code, loosening regulations and increasing domestic energy production as means to jump start the economy. Unlike Gillan, he proposes a full repeal of Obamacare and replacing it with market-based reforms. Thus far, Daines has out-raised Gillan by a greater than 3-1 margin. Given the general anti-Washington views in the mountain west, specifically against Obama, I would expect Daines to win this race.
There are five very important questions on the Montana ballot this year. Each one touches upon issues of vital importance. The first is a parental notification law with regards to abortion. This law, if approved, would provide for criminal penalties against abortion providers if they fail to notify the parents of minors seeking abortion. It also establishes a judicial by-pass procedure for special cases. It would rescind existing law to be replaced by this one. In effect, it is a stiffening of existing law and more conservative. The judicial waiver is included to satisfy constitutional muster.
A second proposal would be that in order to receive certain state benefits, recipients must show proof of citizenship. It also provides for procedures for determining citizenship. The measure received generally bipartisan support in the legislature. The benefits to be denied if here illegally are things like unemployment benefits or state employment and the like. Additionally, if discovered, state employees would be obligated to notify the federal government of the presence of an illegal immigrant. Essentially, the system would utilize existing federal databases to verify the immigration status of applicants. Most of the testimony in opposition to the law focused not on the actual potential civil rights violations, but on the cost of implementation, purchase of software, and potential litigation. For example, they cited that Arizona spent over $2 million defending their immigration law. However, Montana is in a good financial position ($400 million budget surplus) to defend the legislation which, if passed, will be likely.
A third question is yet another “anti-mandate” one as concerns Obamacare. Specifically, it states the right of Montana residents to purchase or not purchase health insurance and guarantees freedom of choice regarding plans should they choose to purchase insurance. What these initiatives do is twofold: first, they state the beliefs, wants and needs of the residents. Second, they codify these and set up potential future judicial battles pitting states against the federal government. It should be noted that nothing would prohibit the federal government, through the tax code, from enforcing Obamacare provisions on Montana residents.
The fourth question requires some explanation. In 2004, Montana voters approved the use of medical marijuana. The legislature subsequently passed legislation to implement the ballot initiative. However, the federal government has essentially blocked it from ever really being implemented under law. In 2011, the legislature moved to repeal the 2004 law which was vetoed by Governor Schweitzer stating that a repeal would go against the will of the voters in 2004. Hence, the question is being again put to the voters this year as to whether to essentially over-ride the veto of Schweitzer. Complicating the issue is a 2012 court ruling that decided that licensed growers of medical marijuana are not any more immune from federal prosecution than the casual grower of pot. Furthermore, proponents of the veto argue that the existing medical marijuana law would be replaced by a new one and that, therefore, this is not necessarily going against the wishes of voters in 2004, but a revision of the existing law. Considering that most of the proponents are also against the use of medical marijuana, this stance is somewhat disingenuous as they realize that the current legislature is somewhat against the use of medical marijuana for various reasons. Once again, if the federal government would revise outdated federal drug laws with respect to marijuana- especially its medicinal use- there likely would be less controversy. Changing the law at the federal level should be a priority.
The final question is whether corporations should be banned from making contributions in state and federal races. As stated earlier, this stems from a per curium decision of the US Supreme Court last term. In essence, that decision deemed the 100 year old corporate ban in Montana unconstitutional under Citizen’s United. This initiative would attempt to reinstitute that ban and then direct the Montana federal delegation of lawmakers to work towards laws that essentially overrule Citizen’s United. The main group in support of the measure- Stand with Montanans- asserts this does not attempt to reinstitute the ban, but does seek to direct the state’s policy regarding the matter. Although the measure will likely pass, it is really hard to see how this is nothing more than a “feel good” initiative. Directed state policy cannot tie the hands and votes of a federal legislator from Montana or any other state, but it can place political pressure on them and be used by future opponents should they fail to do so by later saying, “they violated the will of the people of Montana on this subject.”
In conclusion: Romney will take Montana’s three electoral votes while the Governor’s Office will remain in the hands of the Democratic Party in the name of Steve Bullock. Romney’s coat tail effects will be enough to extend to the Senate race as Denny Rehberg will defeat Jon Tester in a very close race with only a larger-than-normal vote for Libertarian candidate Dan Cox preventing a Rehberg victory. Finally, Steve Daines will keep Montana’s lone House seat in the hands of Republicans.
Running totals thus far: Barack Obama leads in electoral votes 78-25 while the Senate is tied in seats 11-11. In the House, Democrats lead 49 seats to 32 thus far. Republicans have picked up a net total of one Governor’s Office (Washington).