Montana: Utility regs and clean energy up for grabs


When Democrat Dennis McDonald first decided to try to knock Denny Rehberg out of Montana's sole seat in the House of Representatives, his chances appeared good. Montana's Democrats had been on a roll since 2004, winning a Senate seat, the governor's mansion and four other statewide offices. McDonald has a background in ranching -- an important factor in Montana races -- and he'd run the state's Democratic Party for several years. Rehberg, a Republican rancher/developer seeking his sixth term in the House, didn't have a lot of major accomplishments to run on.

But like many other candidates, McDonald has been caught up in the national political shifts. The controversial actions of Democrats in Washington, D.C., and the alarmism voiced by leading Republicans and Tea Partiers, have reduced McDonald's chances to near zero. Just follow the campaign money: By midsummer, McDonald had raised less than one-fifth of Rehberg's $1 million-plus war chest.

Now political suspense in Montana centers mostly on the state Legislature, where the question is: How much ground will Democrats lose in each chamber?

Three other state-level contests have populist overtones and are worth watching:
Ken Toole, a Democrat running for re-election to one of the five seats on the Public Service Commission, has been labeled “a radical environmentalist” by his opponent, Republican lawyer Bill Gallagher. The PSC oversees public utilities' rates and energy development strategies. Since Toole won the seat in 2006, he's blocked foreign investors' attempt to buy the biggest electricity company, pushed for development of clean energy and more efficiency, and called for more disclosure of executives' salaries. Gallagher wants lighter regulations, backs coal power and is skeptical about climate change; if he wins, he would likely serve the utility executives.

An open seat on the Montana Supreme Court -- a frequent champion for workers and other underdogs -- is the prize sought by Beth Baker and Nels Swandal. Baker, a Helena lawyer and former state prosecutor, has bipartisan support that includes environmental groups and labor unions. Swandal, a district judge from a ranching community, says he believes in limited government; he's backed by ag groups and the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

A ballot measure, I-161, seeks to weaken the power of the state's 300-some outfitters and their clients (mostly wealthy out-of-state hunters). Outfitters are guaranteed 5,500 nonresident licenses for their clients to hunt big game and deer; they leverage that allocation to make deals with landowners to reserve good hunting grounds for nonresidents. I-161 would require outfitters to enter the general lottery for hunting licenses, while raising the fees for nonresidents and using some of that money to acquire more access for residents. That's why the Montana Wildlife Federation is among its backers.

Most outdated platform Not only has Montana's Republican Party purged some moderate candidates, the party platform still has an old, ugly provision saying that gay sex should be illegal.

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