Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Montana’s revenge?

WHILE WE WAIT on the Supreme Court’s sure-to-be-momentous decision of the fate of the health-care law, the Supremes on Monday handed down another decision, one that sends the state of Montana a belated but harsh message: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, rejected AB 1070, Montana’s challenge to the court’s Citizens United decision, and struck down the Corrupt Practices Act, a 1912 state law that set strict limits on campaign donations, in the wake of political scandals precipitated by deep-pocketed copper-mining barons, a malign legacy of the Gilded Age. The SCOTUS ruling overturns one by the Montana Supreme Court, which had upheld the law in December.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the conservative majority of himself, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, wrote that "independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," and therefore “[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.”

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Montana, ironically, was hit by the same judicial reasoning that had the Supremes strike down elements of Arizona’s repressive anti-immigration law — rejecting that state’s rationale that it had the right to set its own policies on immigration. In both cases, the court ruled (on the same day) that the power of the federal government trumps the power of locality.

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” said Montana Sen. Jon Lester, today on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, I don’t think, used good judgment or common sense … now, what we’re gonna see in Montana is corporations and their big money are gonna be controlling elections a lot more than people and their ideas, and people and ideas are what elections should be about. That’s a Montana value.”

“It really is a kick in the teeth to our democracy, and I think Montanans understand that.”

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But this SCOTUS decision, and the court’s ruling in the earlier landmark Citizens United case, could be the lemons that Montana Democrats, and the Democratic Party generally, need to make lemonade in the fall. In the short term, it’s possible that these work to the advantage of the Obama re-election effort. Montana may not be an automatic W in the Republican column in 2012.

If a plurality of Montanans feel like Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Montana could swing Democratic in the fall, with the state’s voters sticking a willful thumb in the eye of the moneyed interests they’ve long opposed — and the Republican Party that parlays with those moneyed interests.

It’s possible that, thanks in part to the Supremes’ decision — what some are already calling Citizens United II — Montanans’ sense of independence and civic pride, and an aversion to having a perfectly good century-old law overturned by a rightward-leaning Supreme Court, may yield benefits for downticket Democrats and President Obama’s electoral fortunes in the state.

Far-fetched? Not necessarily. It’s a political truism: People vote their interests. In this case, those interests don’t necessarily break along the fault lines of party. A recent YouTube video in support of I-166, a state initiative on the November ballot and seeking a constitutional amendment to overturn the SCOTUS ruling, features Gov. Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger … a Republican.

Schweitzer handily won re-election in 2008, besting his Republican opponent by two to one. He exits this year due to term limits, but Dems have Steve Bullock, the state’s attorney general, ready to contend for the governor’s chair. Democrats hold four of the top five state offices, as well as both the U.S. Senate seats — Tester has one; the other’s occupied by Max Baucus). But Tester faces a challenge from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, in what’s expected to be a close race.

“It’s hard to see a scenario under which the Republicans take the Senate without taking Montana, which also means the Democrats have to defend it,” said David C. W. Parker, an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University, told The New York Times last August.

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SOME HAVE already decided that Montana is safe for the GOP, and, in the big campaign, for Romney. That seems to presume the state will vote in lockstep with its past as a reflex. But the state’s demographics reflect change. Even though Montana went for George Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008, the margins of those Republican victories got successively narrower, from a relative landslide in 2000 and 2004 to the skin of the teeth in 2008.

In his June 21 FiveThirtyEight blog in The Times, Micah Cohen (while, ironically, explaining why he thinks Montana is a lock for Republicans) lays out a case for Democrats to do well:

Most of the plains counties in eastern Montana, traditionally the most conservative part of the state, have been losing population for years. During the last several decades, mining and agriculture — top industries in the region — both soured for long stretches of time, causing a slow exodus. In Garfield County, one in five people left during the 1990s.

At the same time, western Montana has seen a large influx of migrants from the West Coast, from more liberal cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many outdoor-loving entrepreneurs, untethered from their customers by the spread of high-speed Internet, have relocated to western Montana’s mountainous landscape, helping to make the region’s economy more diverse than the eastern part of the state, and less dependent on resource extraction (although, to the east’s growing resentment, the entire state benefits from the current energy boom). ...

The flight from eastern Montana and influx into western Montana have combined to make the state more friendly to Democratic politicians, particularly in state-level races. ...

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All this presents special challenges for Team Romney. The flood tide of TV ad buys by his campaign and the SuperPACs shoveling cash into furnaces on his behalf elsewhere may not yield big dividends in the Treasure State.

With a million people in the entire state, any attempt to carpet-bomb the local media market confronts Montanans’ independent streak, their state’s historical support of progressive ideas (such as women’s suffrage and unions); and (witness the bipartisan gubernatorial leadership) their proven ability to ignore party identities in pursuit of practical solutions to the state’s problems. A blanket-the-airwaves strategy runs the risk of making it look like Romney “phoned it in” instead of focusing on the state’s singular identity, and singular challenges — or worse yet, that Romney attempted to buy the state's election results. Shades of the Copper Kings!

And the Romney/GOP line of attack can’t credibly use the economy as a point of leverage; Montana enjoys an unemployment rate of 6 percent, well below the national rate, so unemployment wouldn’t be the Romney talking point it’s been elsewhere around the country. The Supremes’ dismantling of a 100-year-old campaign-finance law Montanans were apparently happy with could be the emotionally galvanizing tipping-point event that conveys the state to President Obama.

And what’s to lose? If Montana does bolt from the Republicans and go for Obama, there’s really no downside or punishment for its citizens. The oil boom underway in the Bakken shale field, which extends over northeastern Montana and into North Dakota and even Canada, won’t come to a screeching halt. The corporations responsible for extracting oil in the region won’t pick up their marbles and go home. Practically speaking, there’s no penalty Montanans face if they express with their votes their objections to the new SCOTUS ruling — and to the presidential candidate who symbolizes that ruling’s big-money beneficiaries.

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WITH ITS whopping three electoral votes, Montana isn’t expected to be dispositive to the presidential campaign’s outcome, and the change in the political dynamic the state’s population shift suggests is possible may not play out in this election cycle.

But going back 12 years, the trend in Montana is obvious: election by election, this Western state, at least, is increasingly comfortable with questioning the long-held assumption that it automatically swings conservative. George Bush won the state by 25 points in 2000; John McCain eked out a win by 2.4 percentage points in 2008.

Going back further than that? “Overall, since 1889 the state has voted for Democratic governors 60 percent of the time and Democratic presidents 40 percent of the time,” Wikipedia reports.

I-166 signals a pushback against Citizens United at the state level; in the presidential election, a rejection of big-moneyed interests — and what is Mitt Romney if not the poster boy for those interests? — could yield another pushback at the polling places, and maybe, just maybe, a November surprise for Democrats.

Image credits: Great Seal of the State of Montana. Tester: MSNBC. Romney: CBS News.

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