In 1913 the U.S. Constitution was amended to allow citizens to choose their Senate candidates through popular vote rather than letting politicians choose the senators. However, citizens choosing their political champions in the primary may already be a thing of the past and all without a shot fired or constitutional amendment.
The race for Montana’s open U.S. Senate seat is contested in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, but former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger is all but invisible in his race against former Lt. Gov. (and now U.S. Sen.) John Walsh, as is Rep. Champ Edmunds in his race against Congressman Steve Daines.
When I asked Bohlinger (a friend with whom I served on the Health, Human Services and Aging Committee in the Montana House of Representatives) what he felt about party involvement in the primary process he wrote back, “On Nov. 4, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called me to say the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) had chosen their candidate and they did not want to have a contested primary in Montana. I told him there would be a contested primary, and that I thought it was inappropriate for them to become involved in a contested open seat primary election.”
John also stated, “This election is about the people of Montana, and if I were to pick one issue that unites us it is this important question ... who is in charge of our Democracy? Is it the DC power brokers, their PAC money and the influence it buys, the very ones who are financing Senator Walsh’s and Congressman Daines’ campaigns or you, the people of Montana, who live, work and vote here?”
Gov. Steve Bullock confirmed that Harry Reid called and said to appoint Walsh to the Senate (supposedly for political considerations). Bullock did. None of the normal, independent support one would expect from serving in the Montana House, Senate and as lieutenant governor for eight years with Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been forthcoming to John Bohlinger. Yet, Bohlinger says the Democratic Party has not taken sides.
Rep. Edmunds’ case is different. He says that the Montana Republican Party has indeed taken sides – Steve Daines’ side. He accurately points out that in fundraising letters the MTGOP specifically says “we need to elect Steve Daines to the U.S. Senate” but never a mention of Edmunds’ name.
Edmunds alerted me to the use of “Rule 11” to ensure Daines would win the primary. Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana GOP, confirmed that Rule 11 allowed the Republican National Committee to invest in Montana campaigns to ensure victory in November, and it is common for the Executive Central Committee to sign an agreement allowing the use of RNC money to help fund the cause.
In an email, Bowen stated that it was routine to use RNC money to fund technology, etc., and to support all candidates equally. Further, he said that Rule 11 letters were routinely signed and the state and national organizations were remaining neutral.
Though a Republican Executive Board member from 2004 to 2012, I had never heard of Rule 11.
I asked a local activist how the Republican Party found it possible to take sides in the Senate primary and was told it was through a special exemption of Rule 11.
I called Public Service Commission Chairman (and therefore automatically a MTGOP Executive Board member) Bill Gallagher. He confirmed that last fall he was heavily lobbied to vote to allow the use of RNC funds to support Steve Daines in the primary through the use of Rule 11. A separate source told Edmunds the vote was 19-3. This was long after Edmunds had announced his candidacy.
In a phone interview, Edmunds said the reason there are no Daines campaign offices is that local Engagement Team offices (regional offices used by volunteers to make calls, identify voters, get out the vote, etc.) are de facto Daines campaign offices. He further states that an Engagement Team member in the Livingston office apologized for the biased position.
Near Absarokee I happened into an Engagement Team volunteer from West Yellowstone. He said he worked out of the Daines office in Bozeman.
I asked if it was actually an Engagement Team office. He said, “Yes, but everyone knows it is a Daines office. It is staffed only with Daines supporters.”
Like Bohlinger, Champ says that he was also approached to drop out early, not by party leaders but by legislators and others of influence. He was told point blank that he could not win with a paralyzed nerve in his face that gave him an uneven smile.
Back in the ’90s, then Montana Senate President Bruce Crippen stated, “The will of the people pales in comparison to the might of the Montana Senate.” Apparently that sentiment is alive and well in D.C. But hey! If you can’t trust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) to pick your champions for you, who can you trust?
I have found no evidence of party manipulation in the U.S. House races. Daines and Walsh count their political contributions in the millions of dollars. Bohlinger and Edmunds combined have not raised enough to fund a high profile legislative race.