23294607_BG1Former Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer’s announcement he would not run for the newly opened Senate seat of Max Baucus earlier this summer was a huge blow to the party.  Not surprisingly, Democrats had assumed if he ran he would have easily held the seat for the party,  After-all, Schweitzer’s populist stances and rhetoric had a statewide appeal that helped him to the highest office in the state for eight years.

Whether Schweitzer could have won the seat for the party is questionable.  He did have weaknesses and state elections are different than federal elections.  But that is for another article,  What has happened since Schweitzer’s announcement is the GOP has cleared the field for freshman at-large Congressman Steve Daines to run while Democrats have settled on former General and current Lt. Governor John Walsh.  Both look like strong candidates on paper but Montana is a unique state in in terms of its voting habits which means strong candidates on paper can easily be weak in reality.

Since 1964 the state has been a virtual lock for GOP Presidential candidates.   Between 1968 and 2012 the state has only gone Democratic once at the Presidential level in 1992.  Clinton won the state with a mere 37% of the vote, likely helped by Ross Perot taking almost 28% support.  Despite the state’s GOP bent at the Presidential level at the state, Senatorial and Congressional level the state has been much more unique.  Consider that in 19 of the state’s last 22 Senatorial races the Democratic candidate has been triumphant.  Yet, in the last 22 Congressional elections in the state (the exact same electorate) has elected a Republican Congressman has been elected in the last twelve races.

Statewide races have also produced notably distinct results.  In 92, 96 and 2000, Republican Governors triumphed.  From 2004 to today however Democrats have won the last three gubernatorial contests (the latest in 2012).  Between the years of 1991 and 2013 however the GOP has controlled the legislature every year except in 2005-2006 (Dems had one seat majority in the state Senate) and 2009- 2010 (Senate was tied at 10 members apiece).

The regional and geographical partisan distinctions of the state has not changed much since 1992.  Democrats are strongest in heavily urban Missoula  County and a few sparsely populated counties around the state occupied by Native American Tribes.  If one compares the presidential maps of 1996 (a better gauge because Perot ran weaker in the state that year than 92) compared to 2012 the areas of support for Clinton and Obama are largely the same.  Clinton and Obama both carry Missoula County and Native American areas of the state and little else.

Democrats running for statewide office have been more successful.  Let’s take a look at two such Democrats.  Brian Schweitzer’s win in 2004 for the open Governor’s seat and the Senatorial races of 2006 and 2012 where Tester was first elected and reelected as the state’s freshman Senator.  Let’s start with Schweitzer’s win in 2004.  Schweitzer ran a whopping 12 points better than John Kerry that year.  While Kerry earned 51% of the vote in Missoula County, Schweitzer pulled out a much more impressive 60% of the vote in the county for a 20,000 ballot edge.  This edge gave him his victory.  Schweitzer also won several rural and Southern counties that are friendly to Democrats at the state level.  Now let’s take a look at 2006.

Tester won election with less than 1% of the vote and by just over 3,000 ballots.  Tester actually ran better than Schweitzer in Missoula County and ran stronger in the South of the state.  But again, Tester’s win can be solely attributed to the results in Missoula County,  When Tester ran for reelection in 2012 he essentially replicated his 2006 map, except he increased his margins in Missoula County and held down Rehburg’s margins in some more traditionally Republican, rural counties.  It should be noted in 2006 Tester ran against a damaged Republican incumbent in Conrad Burns.

This offers Democrats a way forward.  When Baucus last ran for reelection in 2008 he faced token opposition and won every single county in the state.  However, that year was a national victory for Democrats virtually everywhere.  Since that year Baucus’s numbers have dropped and worries about his handling of Obamacare on the Senate Budget Committee helped convince him to retire.  I could not find numbers on Baucus’s initial Senate victory but it likely followed the pattern of former and current Democratic statewide office holders.  Win Missoula County decisively and hold down GOP margins in the rest of the state.

That will not be an easy feat in 2014.  Congressman Steve Daines was easily elected in 2012 and unlike Rehburg and Burns does not carry the baggage of a scandal or appearing out of touch to the average voter.  Daines also represents a populist wing of the GOP that is not necessarily Tea Party either.  Democrats standard bearer, John Walsh, has a cultural appeal to Republican areas of the state that might allow him to make inroads with Republicans.

That said, the state has taken a rightward turn since 2004.  In 2006 the state legislature returned to full GOP control.  In 2008, despite the state appearing competitive John McCain won the state.  In 2010 the state legislature moved solidly under GOP control.  In 2012, despite Tester’s reelection, the state returned to its heavily GOP roots at the federal level.  So what are the chances the state sends a Republican to the Senate in 2015?  Probably a little over 50%.

Daines has a fundraising edge over Walsh and is better known.  Furthermore, Daines populist approach to land and fiscal issues could play well in the state.  Republican problems in the state in the past in Senatorial races is that their candidates have often been more business friendly than populist.  Democrats have taken the opposite approach.  Still, the battle for this race is unlikely to end in a blowout.  Missoula County will likely go to Walsh.  Traditionally Republican and rural counties may cancel out this effect for Daines.  As a result, this race could be won on the margins more than anything else.

Update: I should add it is very possible the budget shutdown in DC could reverberate in this race as well as the impact of Obamacare.  It is just to early to tell if and how these factors will affect the race.

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