Brian Schweitzer: Barack Obama Can’t Win Montana

Obama fell just two points short in 2008, but he’s set his sights elsewhere this year, writes Ben Jacobs.

Montana has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. Every statewide office except for the state’s at-large House seat is filled by a Democrat. In 2008, the Obama campaign had 50 staffers in the state, and fell just 2 points short of claiming its three electoral votes.

Yet the president’s reelection campaign has effectively written off Montana, according to leading state Democrats including outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

When asked about the president’s prospects in the state (in the same interview where he repeatedly tried to tie Mitt Romney, a Mormon, with polygamy, Schweitzer said, “it’s already sort of predetermined that the GOP is going to win in Montana.” The only scenario in which Obama wins the state, he added, would be as part of a “47-state landslide.”

The Obama campaign—which has promoted its candidate’s prospects in longshot states like Arizona, a state that McCain won by 8 points in 2008 and that has no Democrats holding statewide office—declined to discuss its strategy for the state. In a statement, Spokesman Ben Finkenbinder said “our organization has been building for months in Montana to make sure we are talking to Montanans about the important choice they will face in November.”

But local Democrats, while pleased with the infrastructure Obama built in 2008, said that the president’s campaign has not invested in the state this year. The campaign “is not putting in any resources,” said Bob Funk, the campaign manager for state attorney general candidate Jesse Laslovich.

Big Sky Country has perhaps the most unique political geography of any state. Its eastern half, centered in Billings, is part of the deep red Great Plains. The mountainous western fringe, though, is a Democratic stronghold, anchored by the university town of Missoula to the north and the old Irish mining town of Butte to the south—where the demographics and voting patterns are more similar to a Liverpool housing estate than Billings or Bozeman. Montana has only been carried by a Democratic presidential candidate once since 1964 (in 1992, when Ross Perot, or “old big ears” as Schweitzer called him, split the GOP vote there and Bill Clinton eked out a win). Yet the state has elected only two Republican senators since Woodrow Wilson was president.

The result is a certain political chaos, a state where one Democratic slogan with statewide appeal is “God, Guns, and Gays: Love em’ all.”

The presidential contest aside, Democrats are hopeful for their prospects this year. Although Republicans picked up commanding majorities in both houses of the state legislature in 2010, they used their new power to push fringe legislation, such as bills to impose the gold standard and legalize spear hunting. Those moves triggered a backlash that, in the view of Schweitzer’s senior counselor Eric Stern, “will absolutely have permanent repercussions” on the Republican brand in the state.

In statewide races, both the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Steve Bullock, and first-term senator Jon Tester face what the term-limited Schweitzer handicapped as “50/50 races.” For them, the lack of an active Obama presence may be a blessing in disguise. With Obama running significantly behind the rest of the ticket in Montana, it makes it easier for them to distance themselves from the president. And even without the presidential campaign active, local Democrats said that Bullock and Tester will be bolstered by the infrastructure built by the 2008 campaign. Funk raves about the work that the Obama campaign put in to create “an army [of] … unpaid organizers for Obama” that are still active across the state, he said, and “well trained in the field game.”

Some Democratic operatives have a rosier view. Matt Singer, a Montanan who runs The Bus Federation, an Oregon-based progressive group, sees similarities between Montana and Arizona. Both have ethnic minorities that are solidly Democratic, Native Americans in Montana and Hispanics in Arizona, though there are proportionately a lot more Hispanics in Arizona than Indians in Montana. Singer anticipated that Obama will lose the state by around an 8-point margin, as the red state becomes increasingly purple.

While Montana Democrats have written off the presidential race, they’ve become warily optimistic about their long-term prospects. As Schweitzer puts it, ”In Montana, a Democrat is paddling the canoe upstream, always. There’s probably between a 6-10 percent advantage for [the] GOP camp, so you gotta paddle fast, gotta paddle hard, you can paddle a canoe upstream, just gotta work at it.”