For all the sound and fury from the Tea Party, Montanans might have expected more fireworks in this week's election. But that didn't happen. Nor did the predicted tidal wave of disgruntled voters throw the bums out. In fact, when the dust settled and the final ballots were counted, it was pretty much the same old, same old in Montana and not much different nationally. The incumbents usually won and the preferred candidates of the Republican and Democrat parties continued to dominate the votes of their loyalists.
The state's top-tier race was supposedly a fiercely contested Democratic run-off to determine who would face incumbent Congressman Denny Rehberg. Instead, it turned into a yawner. Dennis McDonald, the hand-picked candidate of the Democratic Party machine, crushed young Tyler Gernant with almost twice as many votes. Gernant was portrayed as having this fired-up campaign of enthusiastic young supporters, but in truth barely edged out co-challenger Melinda Gopher, who had a late start and virtually non-existent campaign spending.
If this primary was boring, however, the general election race between Rehberg and McDonald promises to be anything but. Look for one of the most vicious and dirty campaigns in Montana's history as McDonald and the Democrats go after Rehberg for his lame incumbency and role in the late-night drunken boat crash on Flathead Lake last year. Rehberg and the Republicans, meanwhile, will pound McDonald for his role as a lawyer defending Mafia hit man Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno.
"Ugly" would be the word best describing what's headed our way from now until November in this particular match-up. A troubling indicator for Democrats is that Republicans outnumbered them in this primary race more than two-to-one, with a mere 60,000 Dems casting ballots compared to 127,000 Republicans. Rehberg alone captured more votes than all the Democrats combined and chocked up almost four times as many votes as McDonald was able to muster. If this is enthusiasm on the Democrats' side to dump Rehberg, they've got a lot more work to do.
If you believed the pundits, the Tea Party and the Montana Conservative Alliance (MCA) were supposed to pull the Republican candidates so far to the right edge of the road that two wheels would be in the gravel. But in most of the primary races where radical rightists took on less radical Republicans, the voters decided it was a better idea to keep their wheels on the road.
A good example would be the House contest between former state Sen. John Esp and Joel Boniek in Park and Sweetgrass counties. Boniek was one of the wildest of the right-wing wild bunch in the last legislative session, but was edged out by Esp who told reporters that he "knew the people" in his district and they "weren't going to be jumping on these kinds of bandwagons." His win was echoed by similar results in which Chas Vincent of Libby, a definite right-winger, defeated Rhoda Cargill almost 4-to-1, despite her endorsement by extreme conservatives. The same thing happened in Dillon, with Jeff Wellborn defeating Ron Lake. The radical right can claim at least a few wins, however, such as MCA-supported candidate Lee Randall's victory in southeast Montana. But overall, their efforts bore little fruit.
On the national scene, the electorate's predicted anti-incumbent mood turned into something more akin to apathy than rage. In one of the most high-profile races nationally, the expected dumping of Democrat incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas didn't happen, despite a determined and expensive effort by organized labor unions to defeat her. Instead, Lincoln turned the tables by claiming her "vote could not be bought" and, in a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory, left liberals, the unions and their candidate Bill Halter in ashes. Adding insult to injury Lincoln declared the unions were "special interests" and claimed they wanted to "manipulate the votes." That former President Bill Clinton went to bat for Lincoln in an ad using the same theme of manipulation may have helped her win, but shows little regard for the Democrats' long-time union allies and reveals a fracturing of party unity that bodes ill come November.
In another high-profile race, beleaguered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will face a Tea Party candidate in the fall election. While this may give the Tea Party something to crow about, the general perception is that Reid hoped the Tea Party's candidate, Sharron Angle, would win because she'd be easier to defeat in the general election due to her radical views.
Speaking of radical, California turns out to be an eye-opener as this normally Democrat-leaning state tossed up two very conservative Republican women to seek two of the state's most important seats. Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina dumped $5.5 million of her own money into the three-way primary campaign to win the right to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer in November. Fiorina is hard-core anti-choice and says she'll go after Boxer for her support of the federal bailouts and President Obama's controversial health care overhaul.
In a similar contest, former eBay CEO and billionaire Meg Whitman dropped an astounding $71 million of her own money to gain the opportunity to challenge former California governor Jerry Brown to see who will replace outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. If nothing else, it promises to be a direct clash of ideology and, from all indications, likely one of the most expensive races in the nation.
While it would be risky to draw too many generalizations from the results from 12 state elections, some things seem clear. The radical conservatives hit the beach, but not as the predicted tidal wave. The Democrats, however, are far from safe. Obama's embattled presidency has left many former supporters de-energized and skeptical. If the national results in November echo what we saw in Montana, where twice as many Republicans voted as Democrats, Obama and his party have a lot more challenging work ahead to retain their Congressional majorities.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.