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Monday, May 30, 2005

MT-Sen: Populism Needed in Red States

Posted by Bob Brigham

I really had intended not to post over the long weekend, but there is an online discussion of Democratic populism that is critical to the future of our Party, so I decided I'd rather examine it today than worry about it during the chaos of next week.

Paperwight started the discussion with a precinct-by-precinct examination of how Congressman Bernie Sanders out performs Republicans in the reddest areas of Vermont. David Sirota had more to say and then linked it back to the Montana miracle of Democrats winning in the west.

With all eyes on Montana Senator Conrad Burns re-election campaign and a new poll being released (Left in the West explores it), let's look back at the roll populism has played in Big Sky elections since Burns was elected in 1988.

In American politics -- and especially in the Senate -- incumbents have a huge advantage over challengers. It is difficult for a senator seeking re-election to lose. Absent a major scandal, the most vulnerable election for an incumbent is the first re-election campaign.

For Conrad Burns, that campaign was his 1994 re-election. In that race, Montana Democrats fielded Jack Mudd, a Missoula attorney and Dean of the Law School to challenge the newbie senator. Mudd was what we now refer to as a DLC Democrat, he focused on following polls to try to find a way to not anger voters while avoiding a message of economic populism. Mudd lost.

In 2000, Burns was much stronger of a candidate and had the luxury of being on the same ticket as George Bush after eight years of a Democratic White House (as an aside, Clinton visited and won Montana in 1992). The insiders said Burns would cruise to an easy re-election and not a single Democratic elected official challenged him, instead three statewide officials chose to fight it out in the gubernatorial primary rather than take on Burns. But an unknown farmer named Brian Schweitzer decided to take on Burns -- with little institutional support -- running on a message of economic populism.

Comparing the 1994 and 2000 outcomes shows the power -- especially in the "red states" -- of running a man of the people with a message of economic populism.

Here are the 1994 and 2000 results (PDFs):

218,542 Votes (62%)
131,845 Votes (38%)

208,082 Votes (52%)
194,430 Votes (48%)

That is an astonishing difference in outcomes that can be attributed 100% to running a candidate who is a farmer -- not a city lawyer -- with a message of economic populism.

As everyone knows, Schweitzer went on to be elected Governor of Montana during the 2004 "Montana Miracle" sweep that voters allowed as Democrats stood proud and promised to fight as populists. Governor Schweitzer now enjoys a 57% approval rating, four points higher than President Bush.

Montana Democrats are now faced with deciding between keeping the populist winning streak alive or returning to the DLC message that has wrought nothing but heartache and failure.

Democrat state Senate President Jon Tester is another fiery farmer with a bread-and-butter message of economic populism, while State Auditor John Morrison is another city lawyer on track to suffer the same fate as Jack Mudd and Dusty Deschamps (1998 Montana congressional candidate who was stomped).

There is a Da Vinci code for Democrats and that involves fighting as a populist. There is no reason why the 2004 sweep can't carry over to 2006, all that is necessary is a will to stand strong for the people and ditch the DLC, polled-based, boring campaigns of old.

That is why I'm proud that Swing State Project is supporting Jon Tester. I expect Tester to beat Burns and in the process, continue Schweitzer's trail-blazing of a message that resonates in the heartland, in rural areas, in red states.

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Posted at 02:38 PM in 2006 Elections - Senate, Democrats, Montana | Technorati


Well... That poll really hurts. I was expecting Burns' approval rating to be much lower. I also expected Tester and Morrison to poll much better against Burns heads up.

Posted by: nickshepDEM [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2005 07:05 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

I wouldn't worry about it too much, it is a Mason Dixon poll (same Republican pollsters who think New York will go RED in 2008). Head-to-head numbers are meaningless this far out, Tester hadn't even announced when the poll went into the field. Burns has dropped 5 pts this year...too bad they didn't test his re-elect number because considering the trend (and his last score of 36%) he would have shown up as weak as he is.

Posted by: Bob Brigham [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2005 08:57 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

While it's early in the season.. it may have been early to declare Montana as a high target for a takeover. Those numbers aren't good. Just because its a Mason/Dixon poll doesn't skew the numbers by such a percentage no? Those are awful poll numbers right now, and a LOT of work needs to be done there IMO.

Posted by: Falcon4e [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2005 09:36 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment