Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More Developments in the Montana Senate and House races

What's fascinating about living in a state like Montana is how one change in the statewide political opportunity structure quickly creates other opportunities. Montana is a small state with an even smaller set of political elites. Smart candidates carefully keep their power dry and wait for the best and most opportune moment to run for higher office. One of best chances to win a race comes when there's no pesky incumbent to beat. Why? Incumbents get reelected quite frequently and challengers have all kinds of barriers to surmount (mostly substantially--the lack of name recognition among the public).

Today, a series of events quickly changed the political landscape in the state and opened up new opportunities for that very small political elite. The big event of the day? It appears--according to several sources--that Congressman Denny Rehberg is going to announce on Saturday at the Lincoln-Reagan dinner in Helena that he's running against Senator Jon Tester in 2012. Rehberg, as the state's lone congressman, wouldn't be changing his constituency, but merely his address in Washington. As a former state legislator, Lieutenant Governor, and Congressman for the past decade, Congressman Rehberg represents a recruiting coup for the national Republicans. His name recognition is on par with Senator Tester's, he's capable of raising substantial sums of money, and he's experienced in the ways of Washington. Tester, in short, has a tough race ahead of him. Incumbents don't lose often, but when faced with a quality challenger, the odds of losing certainly increase.

More importantly, Rehberg's announcement creates an open House seat. The best and most qualified Democrats have largely left Rehberg unchallenged. Now, however, a group of Republican and Democratic candidates who have been itching to run for federal office have presented to them the best opportunity to win: that open seat.

Since the news leaked about Rehberg's intentions, in short order we've seen:

The Daines campaign state that they are making a major campaign announcement on Thursday (which will be that Steve Daines is now running for the House and taking his nearly quarter of a million dollars with him).

State Representative Franke Wilmer, who represents HD 64 in Bozeman, announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to the House of Representatives.

We may see other candidates emerge as well (although I suspect that Daines nice fundraising haul will scare off any serious challengers) for the House race.

I will also remind the readers of this blog that there's an open Governor's seat up in 2012 as well.

All of this means we will see a lot of money spent on political advertising in Montana in the next two years, and a lot of national media attention. Frankly, I know some will not be excited about all of this money and all of these ads. But, political science research has shown that reducing the cost of obtaining political information increases voter learning and the propensity to turnout. In other words, all this sound and fury we'll see will signify something and voters be better able to identify candidates, their issue positions, and make informed judgments at the voting booth. And that's a good thing.

One last note. I should disclose the obvious: Franke Wilmer is a colleague of mine in the political science department and a friend. As a friend and colleague, I'm excited she's decided to run (anyone who knows me knows that I'm a political nerd and I think the prospect of a friend running for higher office is really, really cool). That said, my job here as a political scientist and political commentator is to provide the best and most objective analysis I can about political events affecting Montana. I pledge to my readers that, when writing and discussing this race, I will continue to do just that. At the end of the day, I call them as I see them and I value my reputation as a political observer who can see--and discuss--both sides of the political issues.

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