Montana Politics Ryan Zinke Special Election

The special election, Part II

Written by Pete Talbot
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(This is the second installment in a three part series focusing on the special election, tentatively taking place in May, 2017. Republican candidates are the subject of this post. Part III will look at the Democratic candidates.)

Not one of my classier moves but while sipping a little whiskey at Jakes in downtown Billings earlier this week, I couldn’t help but overhear two Republicans talking about the upcoming nominating convention. One was promoting Greg Gianforte for Rep. Ryan Zinke’s soon-to-be open seat. The other was talking up state Sen. Ed Buttrey.

The Gianforte supporter thought the former gubernatorial candidate had the name recognition, the successful businessman reputation and the statewide connections to pull off a win. He also figured Gianforte still had plenty of money left over from his last campaign to self fund.

The Buttrey proponent figured that his was the more moderate candidate, and that would play well with independents. He pointed out that Gianforte just lost an election and that Democrats would reprise the “New Jersey billionaire who’s trying to buy an election” meme. The guy also pointed out, and I did not know this, that Buttrey wasn’t too cash strapped himself and could throw some serious dollars into his own campaign.

So, while most of the pundits think that Gianforte is a shoo-in for the nomination, it ain’t necessarily so. Two of the other announced candidates — Ken Miller of Laurel and Drew Turiano of East Helena — are far right and could peel away some of Gianforte’s votes. I know absolutely nothing about the fifth candidate in this race, Dean Rehbein of Missoula.

Others have shown interest — Daniel Zolnikov of Billings, Scott Sales of Bozeman, Carl Glimm of Kila and Eugene Graf IV, also of Bozeman — but they haven’t plopped down the $1740 the Montana Republican Party is demanding of congressional wannabes. Now that Gianforte has announced, I’m thinking those other folks will go away.

I stumbled across the following passage at the Montana Republican Party website. Penned by Chairman Jeff Essmann, it offers an historic perspective but also a warning:

The last time a vacancy occurred in the U.S. House from Montana was in February 1969 when newly elected President Richard M. Nixon appointed Congressman James F. Battin, who represented the eastern district of Montana (we had two back then) to the federal bench to serve as a federal judge. The Montana Republican Party, if memory serves me correct, had a very divisive knock down and drag out convention, and left the convention bitterly divided. That served to advance the cause of the Democrat Party who managed to elect one of theirs, John Melcher, to a seat he never should have won. Melcher was later elected to the U.S. Senate and was only removed from office in a tight race with Conrad Burns in 1988, over 19 years later.

I have been fielding many calls from people interested in the position. It will be my responsibility to conduct the meeting and conduct it fairly. I will do my best to do so. It will be up to the many people who are interested in the job or are interested in furthering the career of a friend to decide whether the convention will be divisive and lead to the election of an undeserving Democrat about 90 days later, or will be conducted with mutual respect so that we can leave united behind a candidate we can support and get elected. I hope that it will be the latter. But the election of an undeserving Democrat to a 19 year career in Washington should be a cautionary tale to all of us. Please ponder these outcomes and make a sober decision on how you will conduct yourselves over the next few months. The future of the Montana Republican Party and the success of our newly elected President is at stake.

I would venture that “the success of our newly elected President” is already at stake. But the gist of Essmanns’ “cautionary tale” hints that the Republican nominating convention might be contentious.

The Democratic nominating convention could be heated, too. More on that tomorrow. Or the next day. Monday at the latest.

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About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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