Let's get ready to rumble

The Indy sizes up the candidates in the key June 8 primary races.



Outdoor festivals, warmer weather (we think, eventually), 10 p.m. sunsets, even longer lines at the Big Dipper—and primary elections! That's right, dutiful local electorate, it must be June in Missoula, and we've come prepared with an obnoxiously long, mildly informative, occasionally quippy guide to the 2010 primary races that actually matter.

How did we determine which races actually matter? We focused on the four Missoula contests believed to be the most competitive—Senate District 48, House District 94, Missoula County Sheriff and, of course, the four-person Democratic race for U.S. House of Representatives. We didn't cover the Republican primary for Congress here because we've already written about A.J. Otjen and Mark French, and their efforts to knock off incumbent Denny Rehberg, in the weeks leading up to the election (check out for those stories).

Lastly, and most importantly, make sure to vote on Tuesday, June 8. You can visit the Office of Elections website ( or call 406-258-4751 to find your polling place, check your voter registration status and find additional information.

U.S. Representative, Democratic primary

Who wants to run against a millionaire?

Why it matters: A cynic might say it matters because someone has to have the honor of getting trounced by well-funded Republican incumbent Denny Rehberg in November. A more optimistic Democrat would argue that Rehberg is just as vulnerable as any incumbent this year—especially considering his involvement with a late-night boat crash on Flathead Lake last summer—and that this race offers the most compelling Rehberg opponents in years.

Either way, this race matters because Democrats are desperate to find a viable candidate to challenge the incumbent, and that never-ending search has produced this primary election's most wide-open competition.

Name: Tyler Gernant

Age: 27

Home: Missoula

Relevant experience: Worked for Sen. Max Baucus, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird and John Edwards' presidential campaign. Also co-founder of the Rural Advocacy League.

Occupation: Small-business attorney with Bjornson Law Offices.

Why proponents back him: Fourth generation Montanan whose polished campaign and thorough grasp of the issues belie his young age.

Why skeptics balk: The age thing. If elected, Gernant would be the so-called "Baby of the House." Current youngster Aaron Schock, R-Illinois, just turned 29.


Gernant, in his own words:

I had a lot of friends from here in Montana who lost their jobs and ended up having to leave the state to find work. A few of the businesses I've represented as a lawyer have had to close their doors and lay off their employees as a result of what I view as systemic failures within our government. I really felt there was a lot we had to be doing to foster small business development in Montana.

Clean energy is something that could bring a lot of high-paying jobs to Montana, and we weren't doing enough about that at a federal level. Over the next 10 years, it could bring 13,000 high-paying jobs to the state and bring in over a half-a-billion dollars to our economy.

I've talked about giving small businesses a tax credit for hiring new employees. The last time we did something like that in the late '70s, it brought about a huge surge in job growth. That'd be a good start.

When community banks are hurting, they're not lending money to the small businesses in Montana that create jobs. That's what I saw with some of my clients, where all of a sudden they couldn't qualify for loans that they had no trouble qualifying for in the 10 years prior. We need to make sure that what we're doing for the banks that are supposedly too big to fail doesn't adversely affect the small banks here that are the lifeline to business in Montana.

This is the job I want. I didn't want to view something else as a stepping stone. This is what got me interested. This is where I think I can be most effective.

I think fundamentally it's a question about experience. Look at what experience has gotten you—a congressman who has voted for tax cuts for the wealthiest, for putting two wars on our credit card, for this big boondoggle of a prescription drug plan and for our deficit.

Denny talks about small business development, but it's something I've actually done. I've actually worked with hundreds of small businesses across Montana to help them grow and prosper.

Mike Mansfield is someone I think we should all model our lives on. I'm proud that his family has been a part of our campaign.

Sen. Edwards had a real touch with common folks. It was something I always respected, but my opinion of him has definitely changed.

One of the benefits of youth is that I don't have any skeletons in my closet.


Name: Melinda Gopher

Age: 45

Home: Missoula

Relevant experience: Outreach coordinator for Council of Concerned Citizens, fair housing specialist for city of Great Falls and worked on Bill Yellowtail's 1996 campaign for the U.S. House.

Occupation: Student

Why proponents back her: Refreshingly outspoken political outsider who isn't afraid to go after Rehberg—or any of her Democratic opponents—with blunt criticisms.

Why skeptics balk: While entertaining, her lack of political experience and fundraising leave her little chance of beating Rehberg. Gopher, for instance, raised less than $5,000 during the last reporting period.


Gopher, in her own words:

I want to bring back the spirit of public service. I don't see being a politician as a career path.

There's a difference between politics and good government. If we look at politics as the low end of the spectrum and good government as the achievable goal, I feel that cycle after cycle we're setting the bar low. I'm not good at politics, but my objective is to be good at good government.

I grew up on Hill 57 in a two-room house. I come from people—my roots lie in the Rocky Boys Band of Chippewa Indians—who were systematically oppressed through several centuries to arrive at where we were at Hill 57. My whole life is predicated on how out of whack this government's priorities are, and that's what's been the precursor to me being here now.

Last spring at a round dance, we just decided we're sick of this. We're sick of being gaffed off by politicians. We're sick of organizing around an issue and not being heard. We decided to project our story on a greater canvas.

Right now, I can hear Dennis McDonald's voice in my head, and it's the same canned response—same with Tyler, too—as to how to fix the economy. I'm sorry, but that's not good enough.

There's a lack of technology funding in the state. I don't know how we're going to transition to a high-tech economy here in Montana if the federal investment is not there. My spouse and I found that out first-hand trying to get an IT contracting company up and running.

I have to be like this, coming from where I come from. It's my nature.

There's been a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude from the powers that be in the Democratic Party, and I'm comfortable with that.

I'm going to give you a lesson in Indian Politics 101. Now, you think the party and the county chairs have power. Well, in Indian Country it's the powwow announcer. You start with the powwow announcer and they get your message out there. Then it goes down to the clans and the families and the individuals, and calling Grandma Dorothy in Fort Belknap and making sure she's got all her grandkids registered to vote. It's very oral and very word-of-mouth. It's a tried and true political model.

That's the secret to my victory on June 8.


Name: Dennis McDonald

Age: 66

Home: Melville

Relevant experience: Chairman of Montana Democratic Party, 2005–2009.

Occupation: Rancher

Why proponents back him: Established Democratic Party insider who has the connections to beat Rehberg in November.

Why skeptics balk: One of three reasons: 1. It's not exactly a good year to be considered a political insider. 2. The former California lawyer once represented—and allegedly developed close ties to—Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno, a high-profile West Coast Mafioso. 3. In a video that's become viral (just Google "McDonald Mop Flop"), McDonald was caught awkwardly stumbling through seven minutes of questioning from Rehberg supporters outside the congressman's Missoula office. The last two are presumed to be easy-pickin's for Rehberg in the general election.


  • Photo courtesy of Dennis McDonald

McDonald, in his own words:

I've never seen the angst in Montanans' eyes that I have over the last year.

We need a fundamental change in our economic philosophy. Probably 30 years ago our country embarked upon the notion of trickle-down economics. If there's one thing we've learned out of this downturn, trickle-down economics works fine for Wall Street, but doesn't work for Main Street, and particularly not Main Street in Montana.

We need to invest in education. Perhaps we can look toward building a med school in Montana...Secondly, let's build a vet school at MSU in Bozeman. Right now, our students who want to go into veterinary medicine have to go out of state. Finally, let's invest in making Montana Tech at Butte the citadel for green research—that is, renewable energy, research innovation and investment. There's no reason Montana can't be the leading state for renewable energy resources—in wind energy, biomass, geothermal and solar energy.

Unlike some of my opponents, I believe we can develop our state's natural resources in an environmentally prudent manner.

I thought the state's leasing of Otter Creek was probably premature. But once the Land Board made that decision, once the horse left the barn, then it seemed to me that it's the responsibility of our elected leaders to move forward and make sure that it's done correctly.

I've been absolutely opposed to the construction of the Tongue River railroad, and I still am.

I'm very proud of the work I did representing this career criminal. I took this high-ranking Mafia don and made him a government witness.

I think at the end of the day we put, like, 26 high-ranking Mafiosos in jail. I think on that case I did more to assist law enforcement across the country than Rehberg has done in his entire life.

I would say it was probably not my best hour. I would suggest to you that we'll see more and more [stunts like the "Mop Flop" interview]. Rehberg's history has been, whenever he's in a close race, he turns to character assassination. That's all he has.

I hope at the end of the day Montana voters will judge which one of us provides the best opportunity to send Rehberg back to the private sector. That's the ultimate goal.


Name: Sam Rankin

Age: 65

Home: Billings

Relevant experience: Ran unsuccessful bid for state House in 1982 and filed but withdrew for U.S. Senate race in 1996 and 2000.

Occupation: Real estate broker

Why proponents back him: A moderate Democrat who rails against special interest money and preaches fiscal responsibility, and who backs it up by running a barebones campaign.

Why skeptics balk: Entered the race late, ran a limited campaign and has had almost zero visibility.


  • Photo courtesy of Sam Rankin

Rankin, in his own words:

Like most Montanans, I believe excessive money has corrupted the political process on both sides of the aisle. The common man's voice has been displaced by special interests. I believe special interests rule and I don't like the way they rule.

I was sitting back, watching the other candidates, and kept hoping that one of them would visit the issue of special interest money. They didn't.

With baby boomers aging and the benefits they're due to receive, getting the deficit curve under control will alleviate a lot of other problems. You can't change these things overnight, but they have to change.

The entitlements—basically Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—take roughly 43 cents out of every revenue dollar that we spend. There are hundreds of different ideas to consider, but entitlements have to be looked at over time.

There should be no tax increases via the tax code—it's too complex already. But we need something along the line of either a value added tax or a consumption tax.

So people don't get the wrong idea, it would go something like this: hamburger, no; steak, yes. Eggs, no; caviar, yes. We have to increase our revenue and decrease our spending, or else we'll end up like Greece.

Denny Rehberg and I go to the same church.

I'm at a disadvantage, but hopefully we'll tap into how angry Montanans are with what's going on in Washington right now.

If it's not me this year, it will be someone like me next time.

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