Do Montana Democrats Have a Senate Primary Fight on Their Hands?

John Bohlinger is making an outsider case against the DSCC-backed John Walsh, but he may not have the connections to make it count.

HELENA, MT - NOVEMBER 03: (L-R) Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Tester and his wife Sharla Tester applaud during a campaign rally the Montana State Capitol November 3, 2006 in Helena, Montana. With less than a week before Mid-term elections, Tester, a third generation Montana farmer who grows organic crops, a former school teacher, and president of the Montana state Senate, is in a tight race with incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT).
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Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Nov. 12, 2013, 9 a.m.

Former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bo­hlinger’s sur­prise an­nounce­ment last week that he’s run­ning for Sen­ate may have set off a rare event: a con­tested Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate primary.

Bo­hlinger will face off against cur­rent Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who already has the sup­port of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, which of­ten heads off chal­lenges to its pre­ferred can­did­ates. But a strong chal­lenge to Walsh isn’t auto­mat­ic, even though his and Bo­hlinger’s re­sumes in­clude the same top entry.

Without pars­ing cause and ef­fect, Walsh has put to­geth­er a net­work of sup­port­ers along­side the DSCC, in­clud­ing both of the Treas­ure State’s sit­ting sen­at­ors and some of the staff that guided Sen. Jon Test­er’s reelec­tion bid in 2012, who have been help­ing Walsh nav­ig­ate his first time as a stan­dalone can­did­ate and con­nect with donors to fund his cam­paign. Gov. Steve Bul­lock, who plucked Walsh from the Montana Na­tion­al Guard to be his run­ning mate in 2012, touted him earli­er this year when asked about the open Sen­ate seat, though he said then he wasn’t push­ing Walsh one way or the oth­er. Though Bo­hlinger has a long track re­cord in state gov­ern­ment, first as a GOP le­gis­lat­or and then as former Demo­crat­ic Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer’s two-time run­ning mate, it’s not clear who stands ready to help Bo­hlinger make his first solo statewide run, a ma­jor obstacle for the bow-tied politi­cian.

Un­like its Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­part, the DSCC picks sides in battle­ground-state primar­ies with some fre­quency, and its chosen can­did­ates al­most al­ways cap­ture the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. 2010 North Car­o­lina nom­in­ee Elaine Mar­shall was a rare ex­cep­tion, as was party-switch­ing Sen. Ar­len Specter of Pennsylvania, who also lost a primary for his new party’s nod in that tu­mul­tu­ous year. For the most part, though, DSCC-backed can­did­ates ad­vance to their gen­er­al elec­tions, and they have of­ten dis­suaded oth­er vi­able can­did­ates from run­ning at all. The main Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates in two states the party is tar­get­ing, Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes in Ken­tucky and Michelle Nunn in Geor­gia, have only little-known op­pon­ents stand­ing between them and their Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tions.

Bo­hlinger is spend­ing his early days as a can­did­ate ad­van­cing an out­sider case against Walsh, cri­ti­ciz­ing the DSCC and oth­er forces for med­dling in loc­al polit­ics by anoint­ing his re­place­ment in state gov­ern­ment. “I think its in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the DSCC or the paid staff of the Montana Demo­crat­ic Party to in­volve them­selves in primar­ies,” Bo­hlinger said. (Asked to cla­ri­fy, he said he didn’t know who at the state party was sup­port­ing Walsh.) “I think the people of Montana should make the choice, not polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives.” Bo­hlinger told KXLH-TV in Helena that Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id re­cently called him and asked him to exit the race and spare Walsh a primary ahead of an ex­pec­ted match­up with GOP Rep. Steve Daines, a call Bo­hlinger de­fied.

But out­siders still need sup­port­ers, and it’s un­clear which Demo­crats have stepped for­ward for Bo­hlinger (though his cam­paign is in its early stages). Walsh has put to­geth­er a team of cam­paign staffers and sup­port­ers that in­clude both sit­ting Montana sen­at­ors. It’s not clear who Bo­hlinger has in his corner, partly be­cause he won’t say so him­self. Asked spe­cific­ally who is sup­port­ing him, Bo­hlinger replied: “It’s the people of Montana.”

“I hon­estly don’t know that,” said Montana AFL-CIO ex­ec­ut­ive sec­ret­ary Al Ekblad, a close ob­serv­er of the com­ing Sen­ate race, on who might be sup­port­ing Bo­hlinger. “I’m aware of some of the people that he’s talked to, but I haven’t seen any­thing that tells me there are heavy hit­ters lined up to sup­port that race. … I don’t like the word es­tab­lish­ment. But a lot of people have made the de­cision to back John Walsh. I don’t know if lots have made the de­cision to back John Bo­hlinger.”

There is one an­swer to that ques­tion that some deem ob­vi­ous, but the truth may be more com­plic­ated. Former Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer, who plucked Bo­hlinger from the ranks of mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an state sen­at­ors to be his run­ning mate in 2004, may be Bo­hlinger’s closest ally in state polit­ics after eight years as a team. Bo­hlinger says that Sch­weitzer gave his former LG their old 2004 and 2008 cam­paign donor lists and “pledged me a nice con­tri­bu­tion” for his Sen­ate run.

But the ex-gov­ernor — whose shad­ow has hung over the Sen­ate race since Baucus an­nounced his re­tire­ment, and who nearly pulled the trig­ger on a bid him­self be­fore de­clin­ing this sum­mer — is adam­ant that he’s stay­ing not pick­ing sides, des­pite pro­fessed ad­mir­a­tion for Bo­hlinger. Walsh was also a mem­ber of Sch­weitzer’s gov­ern­ment, though not in an elec­ted role: Sch­weitzer picked Walsh to head the state’s Na­tion­al Guard.

“I want to make sure it’s known: I think the world of both, I se­lec­ted them both” for their old jobs, Sch­weitzer said. “At the end of the day I’ll prob­ably be a large donor to both of them,” he ad­ded.

Walsh sup­port­ers privately be­lieve Bo­hlinger won’t be able to put up much of a fight for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, cit­ing Walsh’s early sup­port and likely fin­an­cial ad­vanatage as well as Bo­hlinger’s past as a Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­or. Oth­er ob­serv­ers without a side in the primary think both can­did­ates have po­ten­tial, though Walsh has a ma­jor or­gan­iz­a­tion­al ad­vant­age that could even­tu­ally prove de­cis­ive. Sch­weitzer, in­ter­est­ingly, echoed some of Walsh’s re­cent com­ments when asked about his old run­ning mate — while stress­ing re­peatedly that he’s not tak­ing sides.

“Don’t listen to the bulls—- you hear in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.,” Sch­weitzer said. “If the [primary] elec­tion were held today, John Bo­hlinger would win 2-to-1 over John Walsh. He’s not go­ing to raise the money Walsh is be­cause D.C. has se­lec­ted Walsh as their can­did­ate. … But the elec­tion isn’t right now, it’s next year, and the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate ma­chine in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. has their sights set on John Walsh, so he’ll have a lot more money than John Bo­hlinger.”

That’s as close as a high-pro­file Montana Demo­crat has come to pub­licly tout­ing Bo­hlinger’s can­did­acy, be­sides Bo­hlinger him­self.

“There is not any­body in the state of Montana that doesn’t re­spect John Bo­hlinger and won’t take a meet­ing when he comes to talk to you,” says Ekblad.

Wheth­er those talks will trans­late to primary sup­port, though, is a still-un­answered ques­tion.

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