Respond to this Article December 2004

Top Billings

How a Montana Democrat bagged the hunting and fishing vote, and won the governor's mansion.

By David Sirota

There aren't too many states in the union redder than Montana. George Bush won the state by more than 20 points in November. The state legislature and governorship in the capital, Helena, have been in GOP hands for 16 years. Sparsely-populated Montana is represented by only one congressman, the far-right Rep. Denny Rehberg, and by two senators, an ultra-conservative Republican (Conrad Burns) and a conservative Democrat (Max Baucus) who often votes with the Republicans. The state's electoral votes are conceded so automatically to the GOP that neither party's candidate campaigns there. Culturally, with the exception of a few rich Hollywood types who weekend in places like Big Sky, the state could hardly be further from the metro-cosmopolitan culture of the coasts. To give but one example, Montana has the highest percentage of hunters of any state in the union.

But in November, a Democrat, Brian Schweitzer, won the state's race for governor. Schweitzer not only won, but he also won decisively, beating his opponent Bob Brown, the Republican secretary of state and a two-decade fixture in Montana politics, by a solid four points. His victory was so resounding and provided down-ballot party members such strong coattails that Montana Democrats took the state senate and four of five statewide offices.

How did Schweitzer pull off such a dramatic victory in an election year when Democrats seemed to have lost their capacity to win red states? The answer should give Democrats everywhere some hope and Republicans reason to worry.

The story begins with the man himself. If you look in an encyclopedia under Montana: Self-Image of, you'll find a picture of Brian Schweitzer. He is the grandson of Montana homesteaders and looks the part: He is a burly six-foot-two, always clad in jeans with a gilded silver belt buckle. Schweitzer put himself through college by mopping floors at sororities, got a master's degree from Montana State in, of all things, soil science, and then worked for eight years on irrigation projects in the part of the world that's hardest to irrigate—the Sahara Desert. When he returned to Montana in the late 1980s, he built a farming and ranching business from scratch—no small task at a time when corporate agribusiness was swallowing huge swaths of America's heartland. He is gregarious, tough-talking, and utterly without self-doubt.

But in addition to a winning personality and strong populist convictions, Schweitzer had an innovative, three-part political strategy, one that perfectly fit the current conditions in Montana, but which Democrats across the country could learn from. First, Schweitzer took advantage of public dissatisfaction with two decades of insular one-party rule in the state capital, casting himself as an outsider and a reformer. Second, he rallied small business, usually a solidly GOP constituency, to his side by opposing the deals Republicans had cut in Washington and Helena to favor large or out-of-state corporations over local entrepreneurs. Third, and most interesting of all, Schweitzer figured out how to win over one of the most important, reliably Republican, and symbolically significant groups of voters: hunters and fishermen.

Moving to Montana

To get to Whitefish from the East Coast means a series of smaller and smaller planes, until the last leg from Salt Lake City, when you are basically shoved into a lawn mower with wings. The first thing you notice when you walk out of the one-terminal Kalispell airport is that every car is dirty. Whether a sports car or an SUV, the vastness of the state means long drives, windshields splattered with bug carcasses, and doors caked with dust.

I first traveled to Whitefish four years ago to work as a campaign consultant for Schweitzer during his first run for political office as the Democratic candidate against U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. During those few months, I saw Schweitzer in all manner of different settings—from his speeches to school board meetings to his kibitzing with farmers at the local grain dealer. It was clear this guy was a natural. On his long drives across the state in a late-model Buick sedan, Schweitzer liked listening to right-wing talk radio. Though he despised the hosts' message, he admired the way they stirred their listeners' grievances about government and liberal elites. What Schweitzer knew is that those same listeners, people much like himself, had a whole other set of grievances, ones which Limbaugh and Hannity had no interest in tapping.

Everyone thought Schweitzer was just another Democratic sacrificial lamb who would get crushed in a Republican state. But he barnstormed the state as an old-school economic populist, pointing out that Burns was taking millions from drug companies and other corporate interests. At one event in the rotunda of the state capital, Schweitzer had armed guards dramatically spill a suitcase full of cash on the floor in front of reporters to illustrate how much out-of-state corporate money his opponent was pocketing. In a rally in the GOP stronghold of Kalispell, Schweitzer held up a giant check for more than $4 million made out to Burns from all the special interests that had funded his campaign.

He had a knack for knowing how to make his points most colorfully. Before nearly any professional politician had done so, for instance, Schweitzer organized the first bus trips to Canada to help seniors purchase lower-priced prescription drugs. Invited to Washington for a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser, Schweitzer stood up at the event, broke Washington's unspoken protocol, and ripped into drug industry lobbyists, many of whom were in the room. While Sen. Bob Torricelli (D-N.J.) immediately tried to apologize to the crowd, Schweitzer's rant became the stuff of legends back in Montana.

A populist, insurgent's campaign like Schweitzer's was a better match for the state than many outsiders might think. Montana, as any local would tell you, finds its cultural roots in the fight between workers and corporate barons pulling strings from Wall Street. In Butte, for instance, the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) flourished at the turn of the century until executives at Standard Oil's Anaconda Copper company had organizers shot or lynched. There were more recent echoes of this same divide in the late 1990s when Goldman Sachs executives engineered the takeover—and eventual takedown—of Montana Power, one of the state's economic gems. Thousands of Montanans who owned stock in the hometown company lost their nest eggs.

Schweitzer's message cast him as the latest leader in this traditional struggle. Though he began with virtually no name recognition, by the fall of 2000, Schweitzer had pulled even in the polls. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars in last-minute ads from a panicked National Republican Senatorial Committee for Burns to eke out a 14,000-vote win over the formerly unknown mint farmer from Whitefish.

Schweitzer's near win suddenly made him the star of the state party, and within months, he set his eye on the governorship. Soon after that, the sitting governor, Republican Judy Martz, became engulfed in scandals that indirectly made Schweitzer's gubernatorial prospects even brighter. Martz's policy advisor, Shane Hedges, wound up behind the wheel in a drunk-driving accident that killed a passenger in his car, Montana's Republican House Majority Leader Paul Sliter. As the Billings Gazette reported, “Martz came under fire for taking Hedges directly from the hospital to the governor's mansion, where she laundered his bloody clothes”—a move that almost got her charged with obstruction of justice. The next year, reporters uncovered evidence that two of Martz's state workers were using phones in the governor's office to raise money for Martz's political action committee.

With polls in 2003 showing her approval rating at the 20s, Martz decided not to run for reelection, and the Republican Party nominated Brown, the sitting secretary of state, in her place. Schweitzer knew this was his chance. But he knew his economic populist message was not enough. With gay marriage, medical marijuana, and environmental initiatives on the ballot, the Republicans would be relentless in calling Schweitzer a Kerry clone. Conservative Montana voters had to believe that a Democrat was “one of them.”

The Hunt for Red October

As I was wolfing down a bowl of cereal at my desk in Whitefish this past October, my cell phone rang. It was Schweitzer. Since he's usually up by 4 a.m., and buzzing off two pots of coffee by 6, it was always a bad sign to get a call from him before dawn.

“When's the gun ad going up?” he demanded to know without a hello, the caffeine making his voice quiver ever so slightly. He was calling from the side of a rural highway where his single-engine plane had been forced to land because of bad weather. But all he wanted to talk about was the gun ad.

“Ahh… I can check with—”

“Listen to me very carefully, and get your head in the game,” he said, voice rising. “No matter what our major ad of the week is, I want that damn gun ad running under everything! I want it in every media market, and I want it on TV and radio. The next time I call, I want to know it's happening.”

The phone clicked off without a goodbye. I knew he was right. Just a few days earlier, campaign manager Eric Stern, press secretary Harper Lawson and I went out to Schweitzer's ranch to shoot clay pigeons with his 12-gauge, lamenting the fact that in 2000 we hadn't put enough money behind a gun and outdoorsmen message. We laughed about how, when I came out to Montana for the first time, some of my D.C. friends were appalled that I was working for someone who had actually criticized people like Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) for being too soft on gun-ownership issues. But, four years later, I understood how well Schweitzer's stance fits Montana, where gun ownership is a way of life. People don't like to be told that their way of life needs to be changed, especially in a state that has one of the highest gun ownership and lowest gun violence rates in America.

Pollster Michael Bloomfield's numbers validated this point. He often reminded us that guns and hunting issues not only polled well among hunters, but also among women, who saw it as a “Montana values” issue. Though an August internal poll showed we were never going to beat the Republicans on gun-rights issues alone, that same survey showed more voters thought Schweitzer “shared their values” than did Brown. In other words, matching the Republicans on gun-ownership and outdoorsmen issues was allowing us to make headway on the intangible question of whether Schweitzer was “one of us.”

Our media consultant, Karl Struble, cut an ad showing Schweitzer and his brother Walt decked out in hunting gear, trudging through the woods with rifles, and trumpeting Schweitzer's A-rating from the NRA. The spot was aptly titled “Lifestyle.” We joked that, instead of the audio tracks, Struble could have put the Dukes of Hazzard theme music over the visuals and run it as is. It would end up appearing in every media market in the state, and, as the Great Falls Tribune noted, would help Schweitzer “manage to hold his own in many rural counties and Republican urban areas.” In a coup, the weekly Missoula Independent actually ran its cover with a picture of Schweitzer aiming a new rifle with a headline, “The Democrats' Best Shot.”

But if we had simply tried to argue that Schweitzer was as hawkish on guns as any Republican, we would've won magazine covers but lost the election; in the absence of indisputable proof, voters will believe that Republicans are more likely to protect gun rights. We needed to open another front with an issue that showed voters the clear difference. The candidate himself found one: land and stream access for hunters and fishermen.

To understand why hunting and fishing is such a big deal in Montana, consider this: The state has a population of 971,000; in 2001, 723,000 of them fished, hunted, or watched wildlife, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. Though the state has plenty of land for hunting and fishing, the residents don't take kindly to any effort to restrict their sporting pursuits. Yet throughout the Mountain West, Republicans, working with conservative think tanks, have pushed privatization and property-rights regulations that have the effect of doing just that. In the late '90s, for example, the Montana Republican Party platform, along with Brown's running-mate, Rep. Dave Lewis, tried to restrict the state's treasured Stream Access Law, which demands private landowners allow non-commercial anglers to fish on streams crossing through their property. The legislature also attempted to sell off large chunks of state land, much of it prime hunting territory. Some outdoorsmen became worried that the state's deficit woes would be used as a Republican rationale to reduce spending on public land management programs and sell off even more valuable hunting real estate.

Working with a local outdoorsmen group in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, Schweitzer drafted a 9-point plan to protect cherished hunting and fishing access rights on public and private lands. Among other things, Schweitzer called for keeping public lands in the state's hands, for spending more money to maintain them for hunters and anglers, and for using fees from hunting licenses to buy easements from private property owners to give sportsmen easier access to fields and streams. He unveiled this plan at a town hall meeting of conservative hunters and fishermen in Bozeman, to happy applause. Randy Newburg, a Republican who heads the Headwaters Fish and Game Association in Bozeman, effectively endorsed Schweitzer, calling access a “special” issue, and accusing Republicans in Helena of trying to “sell it off to the highest bidder.”

The beauty of the access issue was three-fold. First, it helped Schweitzer make inroads with the constituency of outdoorsmen that is normally Democrat-averse.

Second, it let us speak to both left-leaning environmentalists, who wanted public lands and wildlife herds maintained, and right-leaning outdoorsmen, who wanted a place to recreate and a steady population of game to hunt. This was especially important because we did not want to alienate the enviros who would be out in force on election day to vote against an initiative to permit cyanide leach mining. Stern, who had a deft sense of strategy, once pointed out, “Hunters can be some of the biggest environmentalists around, even though they don't think of themselves that way and would never in a million years label themselves that.”

Third, it was an issue that would ultimately help us tie Brown in Republican-leaning Gallatin County, one of the fastest growing counties in America. Like other Rocky Mountain exurbs, Gallatin had seen an influx of new residents looking to live in an area with outdoor recreation. Targeting these new residents and making them Democratic voters early were key not only to the election at hand, but also for building a majority for the long haul.

Two days after Schweitzer's town hall meeting, The Wall Street Journal fronted a piece about hunters abandoning Bush because of federal land policy. Reacting to Bush's effort to drill for oil on Montana's Rocky Mountain front, the story quoted one Big Sky rancher saying, “What's turned me off on Bush is that he is trying to force his way into wild places that should never be industrialized.” Schweitzer couldn't have said it better himself.

Small bidness populism

One key reason the access issue had such resonance for Schweitzer was that its propulsive, little-guy-versus-big-guy force was in perfect sync with much of the rest of his message and campaign. Indeed, our first television ads had struck this chord, featuring Schweitzer talking about his small business experience and the need to grow Montana's economy, which has the lowest wages in America. The beauty was, it didn't sound like the usual Democratic fare. Too often, Democratic boilerplate language about helping “working families” makes it sound like the party thinks of Americans as helpless victims of crushing economic forces. In truth, most Americans are proud of their ability to stand on their own two feet and compete, and that self-image is embodied in the small business person. This appeal is particularly strong in Montana where, as Schweitzer likes to remind people, 85 percent of residents own or are employed by small businesses.

While D.C. interest groups like the National Federation of Independent Business have become de facto arms of the Republican Party, at the grassroots level, employees of small businesses aren't particularly Republican, and even small business owners are more up for grabs. Sure, these entrepreneurs don't like high taxes and regulations. But many of them have felt the sting of losing customers and markets to big corporations that used their size and clout unfairly. As a small business owner himself, Schweitzer shared these frustrations and knew how to use them. He seamlessly turned questions about taxation into opportunities to argue that big-box companies like Wal-Mart should pay their fair share and shouldn't be allowed to run roughshod over local business. Education became a way to talk about how state government was hurting small business development by letting Montana's technical college tuitions become among the highest in the nation.

This line of attack was threatening enough that the Republican Governors' Association promptly got aggressive, dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads using innuendo to question Schweitzer's business practices. The barrage culminated in the last week, when they aired a spot featuring three people who had done business with Schweitzer and who told the camera they thought he was “unethical.”

But as polls ultimately showed, the tactics were actually driving up their own candidate's negatives. Because we had spent so much of our own ads talking about small business, and because the GOP ads were so vague, we were able to pivot back to values by painting the attacks as insulting to all farmers, ranchers, and small businesspeople, rather than a legitimate criticism of Schweitzer. (It helped that the Montana Democratic Party aired a response ad noting that one of the people attacking Schweitzer was actually Brown's own cousin.)

Lobbyists and leather couches

It was easy, of course, to run as the little guy when the big guys were messing up. Sixteen years of Republican rule in Montana, like the sustained one-party dominance in Washington today, had left the GOP vulnerable. Polls showed Montanans didn't think much of the legislature's performance in letting the economy bottom out and the you-scratch-my-back nature of Helena politics and lobbying. And just as Newt Gingrich in 1994 exploited Washington's lackadaisical attitude, Schweitzer did the same to Helena's career politicians.

One of the defining moments in the campaign came in late September when Schweitzer held a press conference at the state capitol to ask why Brown had spent $40,000 of taxpayer money to redecorate his secretary of state's office during a state budget crisis.

“At one end of the capitol, the governor was saying we're so short of funding we can't water the lawn out front of the capitol. At the secretary of state's office at the other end, they bought a $2,000 leather couch,” Schweitzer said. And Brown's record, both in public office and as a corporate lobbyist was helping fuel that message. The Montana Democratic Party launched a series of ads questioning how Brown had spent his career passing tax breaks for companies that, once he was out of office, became his lobbying clients. Schweitzer's message was so effective that at one debate, Brown was forced to admit he didn't really know whether lawmakers should be allowed to become corporate lobbyists immediately after leaving the legislature, as Brown himself had done only a few years before.

Schweitzer's outsider appeal was bolstered by his running mate, John Bohlinger, a Republican state senator and a small businessman from Billings. Bohlinger was a perfect partner not only because he made the tandem the first bipartisan ticket in Montana since 1972 when it was required that the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team, but also because he was one of the few politicians in the state with the toughness and business experience to match Schweitzer. His trademark bow-tie and soft-spoken nature hid a hard-scrabble former Marine boxer who didn't take kindly to being pushed around by his colleagues in the legislature or by anyone else. During a campaign stop at a bar that became the stuff of legends, a young former Montana State University linebacker drunkenly told Bohlinger he didn't like guys who wore bowties. The 62-year-old replied, “I don't like guys who tell other guys what to wear.” The two had to be forcibly restrained.

During an Oct. 4 debate at the state university campus in Bozeman, Schweitzer hammered on the need for a change in state government, saying that making Brown governor would be like hiring someone to fix the leaks in your roof, and then, after 26 years of failing to solve the problem, having the repairman ask for four more years to do the job. “After 26 years, I'd probably find a new contractor,” Schweitzer said.

The final push

When the results started trickling in early on election night, we all waited for the key indicator: Yellowstone County, composed of the state's biggest city, Billings, and its environs. Sure, it was great that Missoula, a university town, was going strong for Schweitzer—but that was to be expected from the state's most liberal enclave. It is Yellowstone County that is Montana's own Ohio, and Billings the state's Columbus. As longtime Montana reporter Chuck Johnson pointed out, “Since 1948, all but one winner in the Montana governor's races has carried Yellowstone County”—and we had lost it decisively in the 2000 race.

There was no special way to tailor a message to Billings—in our polls, the best arguments for Schweitzer there, like everywhere, were that he was pro-gun ownership/hunting access rights, and that his populist economic message and outsider status contrasted with Brown's career as a corporate lobbyist and career politician. If you could effectively communicate that in Billings, you could make it anywhere.

So when word came that we had won Yellowstone County by 51-45, Schweitzer knew we were going to pull it out. He had that same look I had seen way back in 1999 when I first met him. It was the look of a man who reveled in trying—and finally succeeding—in doing what “experts” said couldn't be done. Sure, some of the post-election focus may turn to Schweitzer's personality and colorful profile as the key to his victory. “He can lay claim to being the only governor-elect who has to return home to move cattle and wean and castrate calves before being able to attend training sessions put on by the National Governors Association,” wrote one national newsletter after the election.

But that underestimates the path Schweitzer has blazed for a national Democratic Party that desperately needs to reconnect with the working-class and rural regions it was originally built on. His success in using outdoorsmen's priorities helped him bridge a cultural divide that ultimately allowed voters to hear a message they already know deep down is true: that the GOP has sold out its small business roots and has abused power when left unchecked. As the Missoula Independent wrote, “Montanans, having suffered through more than a decade of one-party control of state government, have cast their ballots to bring the state back into balance.”

When I arrived back in Washington after the election, I found Democrats despondent, furious and desperate to find a way to reach out to red state voters. Despite the national disaster, one message from this election is clear: Just head to Whitefish, Mont., and follow the gregarious mint farmer with a smile on his face—he's already out of the wilderness.

David Sirota currently works at the Center for American Progress. He took a leave of absence to work for the Schweitzer campaign.


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