Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Nebraska as Montana

by Kyle Michaelis

Much has been made of the Democratic Party's winning 2004 formula in Montana that saw the election of a Democratic governor despite President Bush's winning the state by 20-percent. Me...I'm not so sure. Each election in any given year and any separate locale is its own beast not to be confused with any other. Still, this article on the lessons of Montana from IN THESE TIMES, a progressive news magazine, does provide some definite reason to hope.

More than the election of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, what really draws ones attention is the state-wide formula that Montana Democrats needed to win. They came to realize what we in Nebraska have had a hard time coming to grips with: we can not win if we're not going to fight for every vote.
A decade ago, the Montana Democratic Party began a period of rebuilding. The Republican Party held the governor's office and controlled both chambers of the legislature by overwhelming majorities. The Democrats committed themselves to the basics. They engaged in a strategic planning process that defined clear, attainable goals. They focused on recruiting candidates who would work hard and win. And they trained candidates and volunteers in the organizing model of grassroots advocacy groups. Democrats soon started making gains in legislative races....

Democrats decided to make sure that their Montana candidates did not fall prey to national Democratic stereotypes. They sought out key constituencies by starting agriculture, small business and sportsman roundtables. The party hired a communications director to move beyond the basics of press releases. And the party recommitted itself to building its grassroots base--central committees and volunteers.

Montana Democrats realized they had another problem...Voters didn't know that Democrats had an economic plan. "The party did a statewide listening tour," he says. Legislative leaders crossed the state to meet with business and labor leaders and compile an economic plan. "We took it to small towns, large towns. We literally laid out a 22-point plan."

It's good to see the Nebraska Democratic Party has already under-taken many of these efforts. We should take note, though, that:
2000 was to prove a bad year for Montana Democrats. With Al Gore running, the Democrats lost the top-of-the-ticket race by 25 percent. Bush's coattails proved too much to overcome down-ticket and strong, experienced Democrats lost their races for the governor's office and for Montana's lone House seat....

It's not going to happen in a single cycle. There are going to be losses, but we just need to keep learning from and building off them. Right here is the fundamental reason we meed a legitimate Democratic candidate for Governor in 2006. This will be a high-profile race in which we have to offer an alternative - even if it's an alternative the people aren't yet ready to embrace. The people need a chance to recognize that an alternative even exists.

Meanwhile, for any prospective candidates:
Schweitzer started running for governor virtually the day after he lost his race for the Senate (in 2000). "For a year and a half," he says, "I read all the newspapers in Montana, read the letters to the editor. When I read a cool letter, I would write them a letter and tell them that. So many candidates think that two weeks before the election, they're somehow going to gin up people to write letters for them. We'd build relationships with people who already wrote letters rather than trying to get new people to write letters to the editor."

He drove across the state, meeting people in rural areas and asking what they needed from government. Those discussions resulted in an agenda that included healthcare reform, economic development and a new approach to higher education with an increased emphasis on community colleges and technical schools. Schweitzer then took his new issue agenda and crossed the state again, giving speeches that never fell into wonk speak. Instead, Schweitzer ran on values, delivering a talk about his family homesteading in Montana, building a church and a community with their friends and neighbors. He talked about being a Bobcat (a graduate of Montana State). He talked about talking to people.

The article finally makes these suggestions for Democrats, all of which apply here in Nebraska:
* Fight everywhere. Schweitzer didn't write off the rural areas of Montana that have recently become Republican strongholds. He campaigned statewide, winning two counties typically lost by Democrats and narrowing the margin in dozens of others.
* Fight back. When Schweitzer got "Swift Boated," his campaign staffers didn't sit silently. They hit back fast and hard. And in his first months in office, Schweitzer didn't refrain from criticizing the president who received more votes than he did. He aggressively criticized Bush on a number of fronts. Now he's more popular than the president among Montana voters.
* Actions speak louder than words. Unlike other Democrats who revel in meta-analysis or theorizing over values, Schweitzer simply did it. Rather than saying he was a real Montanan, he talked about his homesteading ancestors. Rather than talking about reclaiming the flag, Schweitzer just did it--prominently on his Web site and on pens the campaign distributed. And both Schweitzer and the Montana Democrats had plans. They just realized that having the plans was more important than talking about them non-stop.

That last lesson is probably the most important one. If we want Nebraskans to expect better than the Republican status quo provides, we have to start by holding ourselves and our candidates to a higher standard. We need to make promises we can keep about who we are and what we'll accomplish. We do that...and we continue to do that...and the voters will come around in time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank god you put this up. scweitzer ran as a real populist and holy shit, it worked. and youre exactly right, it's going to be a long hard push but one that has to be made. i brought up schweitzer and montana the other day on the neb. dem. blog. his message of economic populism really resonates with me and as democrats we have to offer an alternative to the dlc democrats like nelson.
i was reading the other day that the montana republicans have been reduced to attacking schweitzer's dog. his aggressiveness and populism has brought out their pettiness. it's really something to see them floundering about. i think we have every opportunity to begin moving this state forward by proposing real reform and reframing our agenda as an economic just one.
once again, thanks for putting this up.


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