As expected, Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to a Conrad Burns fundraiser Aug. 16 at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake in Whitefish was more than just a chance for Burns to raise funds.
“It’s great exposure for Senator Burns” and for the Republican Party’s 2006 campaign message, says Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party.
According to an account of Cheney’s keynote speech in the Daily Inter Lake, Cheney told the Whitefish audience, “It is critically important to understand that this nation is fighting a war,” and that “What these Democrats are pushing now is the kind of defeat that has been tried in the past and failed.”
Montanans needed to reelect Burns, Cheney told the audience, so that Democrats’ “failed” policies would not be repeated.
But while Cheney got his licks in for Burns, the event also provided an opportunity for Montana Democrats to spread their message about what they see as failed Republican policies.
Just two days in advance of Cheney’s visit, Joan Ehrenberg, a volunteer with the Flathead Democratic Party Central Committee and chairperson for Flathead Votes, began organizing a peace rally with help from the local chapters of People for Peace and Veterans for Peace. In two days they were able to draw almost as many people to the rally to protest Republican policies as paid a minimum of $250 to see the vice president. (For $5,000 attendees could go fly-fishing with Burns and have their photo taken with Cheney.) The Independent counted about 150 at the height of the rally, which was held at The Saddle Club, a city-owned recreational center on Wisconsin Avenue. Ehrenberg put the number at 200. According to various news reports, between 150 and 160 attended Burns’ fundraiser.
“It’s extremely significant,” Ehrenberg says of the turnout. “I think people are fed up. They wanted to get together and have a solid voice and say, ‘You’re not welcome here.’ If we’d had a week’s notice…”
Denowh dismissed the rally, saying, “It’s typical to have that type of reaction from the far left.”
Denowh characterized the protesters as “not in the mainstream.”
“Most Montanans would reject the type of people supporting Jon Tester,” he told the Independent, connecting the anti-Cheney contingent to Burns’ challenger for his United States Senate seat. Tester and Burns are in a dead heat, according to the latest poll numbers, released Aug. 8 by Rasmussen Reports, which shows the candidates tied with the support of 47 percent of likely voters.
The rally attracted Mike Jopek, Democratic representative for House District 5, Rep. Brady Wiseman, Democrat, HD65, Edd Blackler, Democratic candidate for HD9, and local campaign workers for the state Democratic Party. Also in attendance were Whitefish Mayor Andy Feury and at least two Whitefish city council members, Nick Palmer and Velvet Phillips-Sullivan.
By noon, protesters had lined Wisconsin Avenue along Cheney’s route to The Lodge, holding handmade signs expressing unfavorable opinions of Cheney, Bush, oil prices and the war in Iraq. There were no signs showing support for Tester. Ehrenberg says this was by design.
“It was really a peace rally, it wasn’t a political rally,” she says, noting that the Tester campaign, People for Peace and Veterans for Peace had come to a “mutual decision” to ask that there be no Tester signs.
While the protesters awaited Cheney’s arrival, Jopek, Wiseman and Blackler took the opportunity to work the crowd and talk to potential voters as the local Democratic Party sought signatures for their mailing list.
It was about 1 p.m. when a convoy of police cars, black SUVs and a single black limousine passed by. Antiwar slogans were chanted and posters were held aloft, but the protesters were only within sight of the convoy for a few seconds. Afterward, Jopek, Wiseman and other protesters took the opportunity to address the lingering audience with a PA system that Ehrenberg had set up.
Jopek did not discuss war on the microphone. Instead he stuck to an issue that’s hitting many in Montana even closer to home: gas prices.
“Politicians tell us they can’t do anything about [gas prices], but Conrad Burns has received more PAC dollars from oil and gas corporations than any other member of Congress,” Jopek told the audience, citing a report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics.
“You have to wonder,” he continued, “who are these people [Cheney and Burns] representing? Montanans?”
Tester also addressed gas prices at a speech he delivered in Great Falls the same day, in response to Cheney’s visit. His specific points mirrored those made by Jopek.
So while the Republicans placed their bets on a war-on-terror message at what may be the highest-profile media event of their campaign, the Democrats stuck to fuel.
“The opportunity for the Republicans to raise money was an opportunity for us to talk about the rising cost of gas,” says Tester spokesperson Matt McKenna.
But protesters in Whitefish didn’t seem unified on any one talking point. There were signs noting the high gas prices, signs taunting Cheney about his hunting accident, signs questioning the war in Iraq, signs questioning Israel’s actions in Lebanon, and signs promoting peace at large.
Whether they were held by newly inspired mainstream activists, as Ehrenberg suggests, or a perennially discontented minority, as Denowh says, is a question to be answered in November.