Big Races in Big Sky Country

Big Races in Big Sky Country

Despite six terms in the House and now a major subcommittee over which he will wield the chairman’s gavel. Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg recently announced he would run for the Senate in 2012. 

In making this decision, stalwart conservative Rehberg (lifetime American Conservative Union rating:  90.33%) sets himself up for a classic confrontation with one-term liberal Democratic Sen. Jon Tester (lifetime ACU rating: 16%).  Six years ago, then-State Senate President Tester won a squeaker of a race against Republican Sen. (1988-2006) Conrad Burns in one of the last two Senate races to be decided that year. 
By voting for nearly all of the Obama agenda—from the auto company bailouts to the healthcare plan now making its way to the Supreme Court—Tester has become one of the most vulnerable of the Democratic senators who will face the voters next year.  A just-completed Opinion Diagnostics survey of likely voters in the Big Sky Country shows Rehberg defeating Tester 49% to 43%. 
As his state’s lone U.S. representative, Rehberg has faced all of its voters six times and has never won with less than 58% of the vote.
The conservative congressman’s decision to run for the Senate also changed the political picture in Montana.  Millionaire businessman Steve Daines, who had been gearing up to take on Tester since November and already raised more than $200,000, announced last week that he is switching to a bid for congressman-at-large.  At 48, Daines has had a long and well-rounded career in the private sector: thirteen years with Proctor and Gamble (including stints in Hong Kong and Red China), three years with his family’s construction business in Bozeman and the last decade with RightNow Technologies, a publicly traded company that has 900 employees and provides other businesses with customer experience to deal with government agencies. 
Daines also has years of experience in Republican politics, beginning with his selection as a delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention that renominated Ronald Reagan for President.  Most recently, Daines was Montana chairman for Mike Huckabee’s presidential bid in ’08 and was the unsuccessful GOP nominee for lieutenant governor that year.
Much as with fellow business tycoon Darrell Issa when he entered the race for the House from the San Diego area in 2000, Daines’ wealth and recognition from his past statewide race are likely to discourage many competitors from entering the primary.  At this point, the most oft-mentioned candidate for the Democratic nomination is State Sen. Kim Gillan of Bozeman, who has been in the legislature for 16 years. 

Harman Exit Spotlights New Redistricting Process
“Can we win it?”
That’s what Republicans from coast to coast were asking last week, as soon as the news broke that Rep. Jane Harman (D.-Calif.) will soon resign to head the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Center for Scholars.  The “it” Republicans were referring to is, of course, the Southern California-congressional seat that Harman (lifetime ACU rating: 17.20%) has held for all but two of the last 20 years.  (She relinquished it in 1998 when she unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor, but then recaptured the  36th District two years later).
The conclusion of almost all GOP leaders in the 36th District who talked to me was “No, we can’t.”  The 36th is not what it was in the 1990s, when it was what longtime Southern California GOP activist Steve Frank dubbed a “fair-fight district split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.”  Harman had two hard-fought trips at the polls in 1992 and ’94, and the district sent conservative Republican Steve Kuykendall to Congress in ’98. 
“But it isn’t the same district it was when I ran,” former Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor Susan Brooks told me, recalling how she came within 812 votes of unseating Harman in 1994.  Brooks noted that the 2001 redistricting by the Democrat-run legislature moved the GOP-strong Palos Verdes Peninsula from the 36th to the 46th District, thus giving Harman and Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher safe districts.  Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer both carried the 36th by double-digit percentages.
Moreover, the moving of the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the 46th means that the strongest GOP prospects don’t live in Harman’s district:  Brooks, Kuykendall and state Board of Equalization member Michele Steele, the highest-elected Asian-American Republican in the U.S.
So virtually all the speculation about the special election is focused on liberal Democrats: State Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn (sister of former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn) and Secretary of State Debra Bowen. 
However, the same Republicans who are naysayers about their party’s chances in the yet-to-be-called special election also voice optimism that the Golden State’s new means of redistricting later this year could restore the 36th to its former “fair-fight” status.  Last year, voters approved a statewide initiative that removes congressional redistricting from the legislature and puts it into the hands of an independent citizens commission.
“Some enterprising Republican might invest in a race here,” said Steve Frank, “as the new wave of redistricting could potentially shift this district rightward by returning the GOP-friendly Palos Verdes Peninsula to the district, as it was during the 1990s.  Thus, a respectable 2011 loss could yield a  nomination dividend in a more GOP-amenable district in 2012.  It’s a dynamic worth watching.”  

The New Switcheroos:  Last week was another big one for Democrats switching to the Republican Party in the South.  In Alabama, ten elected Democrats notified State GOP Chairman Mike Hubbard of their intention to become Republicans.  They include Tuscaloosa County Sherriff Ted Sexton, Covington County Sheriff Dennis Meeks and several district judges and a county coroner. 
“I am grateful to the local Republican elected officials and party leaders in Covington and Tuscaloosa Counties,” said Hubbard, who will soon step down as state chairman to become the Yellowhammer State’s first Republican speaker of the state house of representatives in more than a century . “They were instrumental in continuing our Republican momentum by encouraging these changes and we deeply appreciate the time and effort they have put into growing our party for so many years.”
And in Louisiana, State Atty. Gen. Buddy Caldwell announced he was switching from Democrat to Republican.  His exodus leaves Sen. Mary Landrieu as the lone Democratic statewide official in the Pelican State. 

My Errors:  “An error,” John F. Kennedy once said “only becomes a mistake when one refuses to correct it.”  In keeping with my policy of correcting errors before they become mistakes, I admit to two errors in reporting the results of spirited contests for state GOP chairman. 
In New Hampshire, Steve Duprey won the position of GOP national committeeman over the Tea Party-backed State Rep. Jordan Ulrey—not “Emery,” as I wrote .  And on the same page, I referred to outgoing North Carolina State Chairman Tom Fetzer as a former Richmond mayor when he is the former mayor  of Raleigh.