A New Political Day in Montana: Can The State Matter?

5-12-08

The annual Truman Dinner, organized by the Yellowstone County Democratic Party in Billings, has long been a homegrown affair held in a low-ceilinged conference room in a downtown hotel. Local candidates would mutter for a few moments and then sit to scattered applause. Later, the small, overdressed crowd would browse tables of donated items in a silent auction. A staple of the event was a goofy performance by a retired high school teacher named Jack Johnson, who would dress like Harry Truman and deliver one of the former president’s famous speeches.

It was a great forum, in a kitschy sort of way, for Montana’s citizen-legislature-in-the-making, but not this year.

This dinner was held in the gussied-up cafeteria of the University of Montana-Billings. There was neither a silent auction nor speeches by local candidates. After the meal, everyone trooped over to the college athletic center, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota gave a polished pitch for a Democratic surge across the High Plains and the West. A parade of major speakers followed, and clips of rock music blared in the interludes. The speakers’ images appeared superhuman on massive screens alongside the stage. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal leaned on the podium and delivered a subtle and folksy endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nominee. The crowd rose to its feet, campaign signs waving. A wall of Obama fans in the bleachers cheered and stomped. Then former President Bill Clinton took the stage like a superstar.

“This is the darnedest election I’ve ever been in in my life,” Clinton said.

A few months ago, Craig Wilson, one of Montana’s most prominent nonpartisan students of politics, predicted that Montana’s Democratic primary would garner little if any national attention and few ad dollars. Montana’s never really in play, he argued. The real story of a close primary would be the super-delegates, he said.

“We’re in the wrong hinterlands,” Wilson added. Small states like New Hampshire staked out important primary territory long ago. Montana has more of a lame duck status, he said, holding its primary long after other contests have decided the winner. “We’ll be lucky if somebody is flying over from Chicago to Seattle and parachutes into Missoula or Billings for an hour campaign appearance.”

Wilson’s primary notions can be forgiven. The days of cross-country speeches from campaign trains were long gone. It seems the only political insiders who dreamed Montana might be worth wooing—and that the state’s 24 Democratic delegates might make a difference—worked for Obama, who envisioned a true 50-state campaign while it still seemed a bit lunatic. He courted Democrats in Idaho, Utah and Washington, for instance, and handily chalked up wins.

“I’ve met people here who’ve never been involved before,” said Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath, who is running for the state supreme court. McGrath credited the grassroots Obama campaign for making the entire primary process more relevant.

Some people evidently still think a 50-state campaign is a little strange. In a conference call with reporters last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist repeatedly emphasized that his candidate had won the “key states.” It’s true, too. Clinton won California, Texas and Pennsylvania, to name a few of the perennial battlegrounds.

But this time it seems the key states won’t deliver the win. States like Wyoming, which broke for Obama, have made California less important. It’s about time.

Back in the summer and fall of 2000 if Al Gore had diverted to Montana just a small portion of the money his campaign had poured into Florida, he might have prevailed that November. After all, Gore didn’t need all of Florida’s electoral votes. In the election-night cliffhanger, he was only one vote short. Any of the write-off states could have put him over the top.

Politicians in the West have welcomed Obama’s attention. It feels pretty good. One of Gov. Freudenthal’s lines about Obama was that he “was country before country was cool.”

But Obama’s campaign didn’t blindly pick the strategy. Democratic candidates have been making headway across the Mountain West in recent years. In 2006, Montana became the focus of national political attention—and a huge pile of Democratic money—in the final days of the campaign as Sen. Jon Tester unseated his embattled rival Conrad Burns.

Clinton has made an effort to jump on the 50-state bandwagon. Her campaign opened an office earlier this month in Missoula and Billings. This morning, her campaign announced another campaign appearance by Bill Clinton tomorrow in Kalispell. With both Democratic candidates campaigning and spending in the Big Sky, country has become pretty cool.

It sure seemed like it at the Truman Dinner, where the major television news stations even had cameramen and reporters and where retired schoolteacher Jack Johnson (and his Truman act) was nowhere to be seen.

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