The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion. © James R. Conner.


8 September 2012

Is this Kim Gillan’s last hurrah?

Updated. I think so. Gillan’s down in the polls, cash poor compared to Steve Daines, forsaken by national and state Democrats, drawing small crowds, and just not catching fire. The question is not whether her campaign’s in deep trouble, but whether it can be salvaged — and the odds that it can are lottery ticket low. Unless she does something bold, provocative, and compelling, and soon, and catches a couple of lucky breaks, she’ll be the ninth consecutive Democrat to lose an election for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Democrats began losing contests for Congress after Pat Williams retired. But the bottom really fell out after Nancy Keenan’s loss in 2000. And the Democratic Party's conduct in the last two elections amounted to political malpractice. PDF for printing.

Montana’s seat in the U.S. House is a low priority for Democrats

Gillan’s troubles are partly of her own making, but not entirely so. Ever since Nancy Keenan lost to Denny Rehberg in 2000, Montana’s Democratic Party has placed a low priority on winning Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sure, Democrats would like to win the seat, but the party’s highest priorities are retaining the offices Democrats already hold: U.S. Senator, Governor, and the Montana offices of Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Moreover, running for Congress in Montana is seen as disproportionately expensive for a 1/435th share of the U.S. House. So Democratic candidates for Congress get little help from the party. Among other things, that leads to destructive, inconclusive primaries that suck up money while producing weak winners who receive less than a third of the votes. It also leads to six-term Republican incumbent congressmen who challenge one-term incumbent Democratic senators.


Steve Daines has a lot more cash than Gillan, but the total amount of money raised by Gillan and her fellow Democrats through 30 June 2012 comes close to parity with Daines. Gillan's problem is not that Democratic donors have shallow pockets, but that Democratic leaders have decided that Gillan’s is a lost cause. Their message: “Spend your money elsewhere.” PDF for printing.

A weak primary victory

Gillan received just 30.9 percent of the votes in a Democratic primary with abysmal turnout. She didn’t really stand out from her competitors, but she did run a tactically sound primary campaign, focusing on traditional Democratic constituencies, especially unions, securing endorsements from organizations and current and former Democratic legislators, presenting herself as a consensus building problem solver, and ignoring the sure-to-be Republican nominee, Steve Daines (only Rob Stutz argued that Democrats should choose the candidate best equipped to beat Daines; but Democrats didn’t want Daines mentioned during the primary campaign). She emerged from the primary with the nomination, but not with the resounding endorsement of a strong majority of Democratic voters primary voters. Nor did she emerge with a visible strategy for beating Steve Daines.

A good woman, a capable legislator, an awful Congressional campaigner

It would be impossible, I think, to find a responsible citizen who dislikes Kim Gillan. Her colleagues in the Legislature respect her and acknowledge that she gets things done. She’s a thoroughly decent human being. I think that at heart, she really does see herself as a problem solver who fixes one little thing at a time in a bipartisan way. She viscerally recoils from political confrontation (in a recent television interview she failed to seize an opportunity to criticize Daines). Her new television spot is Kumbaya, not kick butt. It’s not cowardice. But it is an approach to politics and life that leaves her poorly suited for a Congressional campaign in which winning requires convincing voters that her opponent is the wrong man, with the wrong ideas, with the wrong friends, for the job.

The most policy consequential election in 80 years

This election is not about whether Gillan or Daines is smarter, better informed, better able to work with friends, better able to represent the unique interests of Montana. Those qualities are not unimportant, and would be decisive factors if bipartisanship were still alive in Congress. But bipartisanship is dead, killed by a Republican Party that’s become a monolithic caucus of the radical right, a caucus of reactionary ideologues hell bent on wrecking Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, laws protecting labor and consumers, and lowering taxes on the rich. If today’s GOP controls Congress and the Presidency, it will repeal 80 years of social and economic progress, replacing it with a you’re-on-your-own dystopia only Ayn Rand could love. If you’re not frightened by that possibility, you should be. This election will be the most policy consequential election since 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt faced Herbert Hoover, and the most dangerous since 1860, when southern Democrats, in the defense of cheap labor and human bondage, sought to tear the nation asunder.

What matters most in Montana’s congressional election is which party prevails. As the Democratic nominee, Gillan must expose Daines for what he is: a spear-carrier for the party that wants to kill social insurance, and free the turkey buzzards of private enterprise from the chains of government regulation and the indignity of paying taxes. She must combine her promises to create jobs and protect social insurance with a vigorous prosecution of the case against the Republican Party and Daines. That would give her a fighting chance of winning.

But she’s not going to attack Daines. It’s just not in her genes. She hasn’t even exploited golden opportunities to defend Social Security: on 14 August, the 77th anniversary of the signing of the law creating Social Security, her campaign’s press release was on: nothing; no press release. Therefore, my conclusion is that she can win only if Daines is brought down by a major scandal. I hope she proves me wrong, but I doubt that she will.