The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Friday, July 15, 2005

Brian Schweitzer

Matt Singer from Left In The West, has a very good piece on Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer in the newest edition of In These Times:

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.


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.


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.

Texas Democrats could learn a thing or two from Montana and the Schweitzer campaigns. First, while Singer doesn't place as much importance on this as he does on other points, we need to realize that it's gonna take some time. As much as we'd like to think that the '06 election cycle will see us hold a majority in the Statehouse and every statewide seat, that's not likely to happen. Invariably, some candidates won't raise enough money, others won't be able to persuade enough people to help them out, some will run bad campaigns or just won't work as hard as they need to, while others will have candidates who run flawless campaigns, and others still just won't be able to make up the starting deficit a good chunk of our candidates will face.

But Matt's absolutely right about our need to fight everywhere and fight back. There are salient issues that will resonate everywhere- school finance, a modern and fair system of taxation, political reform, and expanding the values debate to include such social programs like children's insurance. And while we all love the line of- we want Democrats to act like Democrats- we also need to understand that we're going to have to push past partisanship.

But we can't fight everywhere and fight back if we don't have the people to fight with. It's going to take all of us doing our part because if we're going to win it's going to be close. There ain't gonna be no statewide Dem candidate who's gonna take 55% or more of the vote. Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson was legendary for his insane practice schedule. He hardly ever took a day off that wasn't a planned/strategic day off from his training regimen. His reasoning was that somewhere else out there, there's some guy training 6 or 7 days a week. If I only train 5 or 6 days a week, then by the end of the year I've lost 52 days, nearly two months, of training on him.

This is the sort of commitment we're going to need to win. Because somewhere out there either A) some other Democrat is not living up to his/her end of the deal or B) some Republican is trying to work a day more or an hour longer than you are. Y'all up for it?