President Barack Obama hasn't visited Montana since speaking in a Belgrade airport hangar last August, but his presence appeared to have a significant impact on the state's March 15 filing deadline for legislative candidates. Both Republican and Democratic leaders in the state attributed this year's record-breaking 337 candidates to Obama, either positively or negatively.
State Republicans consider Obama the catalyst of conservative movements nationwide in 2009 and 2010, and point to his failed efforts on health care, the economy and job creation as reason for the surge of candidates.
"He's the gift that keeps on giving," says Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps. "He's helped homogenize a lot of the people in the conservative movement, because they see a great danger in where this nation could be heading...I think it's just awakened the sleeping giant."
That giant, however, creates a logistical problem for the party. While the GOP welcomes growth in its conservative base across the state, the number of Republicans filing for state office could have an unexpected drawback. Of the 337 candidates who filed to run this year, 188 registered with the GOP. That glut of Republican hopefuls means GOP incumbents in 11 legislative seats face opposition from fellow party members in June primaries. By comparison, only six Democratic incumbents are running against inner-party opposition.
- Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Bryce Bennett, a 25-year-old University of Montana graduate, filed for the House District 92 seat in the 2011 Legislature. An increased number of young candidates is just one of a number of changes noted in the current election cycle.
"More people filing is good. More active Republicans is good," says Montana GOP Executive Director Bowen Greenwood. "We love that people want to get involved. I know from the perspective of a candidate—an incumbent or otherwise—that it's easier not to have a primary, but easier isn't always better. There's nothing like a good warm-up lap before the real race begins to get you going."
But tough campaigning during primaries could significantly reduce a candidate's financial resources. And with money tight in the state, those primary races may have a greater impact on the general election, where Republicans will face additional competition from other conservative factions.
Increased activity on the far right in western Montana has prompted a number of candidates to run under the banners of the Constitution or Libertarian parties, a potential vote-splitter among conservatives in this fall's general election. The trend isn't unprecedented, but Deschamps notes split votes have proven problematic in the past.
"Certainly I have a concern, because...in some cases a good conservative candidate, a member of the Republican Party, has an opportunity to win a race and doesn't because a Constitutionalist gets in," Deschamps says. "Go back to Conrad Burns'  race. No matter how nasty it was, there was a Constitutionalist in that race. If you had taken that Constitutionalist and given three-fourths of his votes to Burns, the Republicans would have won."
Deschamps and others say they hope to garner support from citizen organizations formed in response to Obama's presidential campaign for support in 2010. But many members of groups like Hamilton-based Celebrating Conservatism don't consider the GOP conservative enough. For example, Dan Cox, a prominent member of Celebrating Conservatism, filed in Senate District 44 as a Libertarian, and will likely draw voters away from the GOP's candidate.
Meanwhile, Democrats are riding a different wave generated by the 2008 presidential race. Montana Democratic Party Chairman Jim Elliot says he's now one of only two staff members with the state's Democratic Party over the age of 30. Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, adds the passion generated by Obama's campaign has paid off in the form of more young candidates filing as Democrats in legislative races. She offers Bryce Bennett, a 25-year-old founding member of Forward Montana and 2010 candidate for House District 92, as evidence that Montana's youth are eager to step into the political arena.
"These candidates, they're showing an intense enthusiasm for being part of the process for the first time," says David Benson, the Democratic Party's executive director. "And we are providing training that shows them how to work the doors...Through that process and that excitement and that energy level, they become a really valuable candidate for our races."
The power of youth is far from lost on Republicans. Greenwood says he's seen a dramatic spike in activism among groups like the College Republicans since the 2008 cycle, and Deschamps says the party will put an emphasis on new media, particularly social networking, to reach younger voters. The Montana GOP's website has been "woefully insufficient" over the years, Deschamps admits.
"We're making efforts to reach out and make sure that we're on Facebook, MySpace, that we're updating our website," Deschamps says. "We want to keep the younger demographics involved, 'cause they're the ones who are going to be paying the bill."
How widely each party embraces these changes, and how well the GOP is able to unify its scattered conservative base, will likely shape the outcome of legislative races this fall. But with so much riding on the primaries for the GOP, the "odd, odd year" of 2010, as Deschamps says, will be heating up well before summer.