(Editor’s note: This story kicks off Lee Newspapers State Bureau’s coverage of the primary election races for the U.S. House and Senate.)
HELENA – Two Helena men – one a former legislator and public service commissioner who has been a frequent candidate and the other running for the first time but not new to politics – will face off for the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. House in the June 3 primary election
They are retired Montana National Guard Col. John Driscoll, 67, and John Lewis, 36, former state director for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.
They are seeking the House seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is running for the U.S. Senate this year.
Republicans have held the House seat since 1996, when veteran Democratic Rep. Pat Williams retired. Since then Republicans Rick Hill served in Congress for four years, former Rep. Denny Rehberg held it for 12 years and Daines has been there the past two years.
Five Republican candidates are seeking their party’s nomination for the House this year. They are state Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings, state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings, Drew Turiano of Helena and former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish. They will be covered in stories next week.
Lewis declared his candidacy for the House in mid-October after exploring the possibility for several months.
He’s been campaigning full time, traveling to all 56 counties, and fundraising since then. As Dec. 31, he had raised about $395,000 and said last week he collected about $300,000 more in the first quarter of this year. The latest quarterly reports are due Tuesday.
Lewis worked for former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for 12 years before resigning in August. He worked on Baucus’ 2002 campaign and was field director of the 2008 campaign.
In what was a rare move, the Montana Democratic Party endorsed Lewis. He also has picked up endorsements from MEA-MFT, Montana State Firemen’s Association, Montana Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana.
Driscoll said he has not yet received any endorsements.
His candidacy this year was a last-minute surprise, just as it was in 2008. Six years ago, Driscoll filed near the deadline and went on to win the Democratic primary for the House, despite raising and spending no money. Driscoll upset Jim Hunt, a Helena lawyer who had the backing of many top Democrats.
In the general election campaign in 2008, Driscoll said he would vote for Rehberg if the Republican congressman voted against the bank bailout bill, which Rehberg did. Driscoll said this year he wound up voting for himself then. Rehberg defeated him, 64 percent to 32 percent.
Driscoll said he won’t raise any money for this primary campaign, but will accept contributions if he wins the primary.
David Parker, political science professor from Montana State University, said the both parties’ House primaries are “low-information events” for voters.
“It’s tougher to make choices in the primary,” Parker said. “In the fall, you go to vote and you have a party identification that explains who you are. What that means in both cases is elections are driven by who can get known.”
He said the Democratic Party’s endorsement of Lewis is important and will carry weight with some voters. He cited a political science research paper that concluded that a party endorsement in a contested primary can be worth five or six percentage points for recipient.
Parker said doesn’t expect Driscoll to upset Lewis as he did Hunt. He cited Lewis’ early start at campaigning and fundraising, his more aggressive campaign and his Democratic Party endorsement.
Driscoll, who was raised in Hamilton, was elected to the Montana House three times in the 1970s and was House speaker in 1977. He was elected and served three terms on the Montana Public Service Commission from 1981-1993. He lost races for the U.S. Senate in 1978, 1990, 2000 and 2000 and the House in 2008.
Asked why he is running for the House, Driscoll said, “My thinking is that I’ve put enough time in here in Montana as part of the social fabric of the state. I’ve been around a lot, in the Guard and the Legislature and the PSC. It’s all out there for people to see. They just have to talk to each other.”
Lewis, who was born in Billings and raised in Missoula, had a different reason for running.
“I’m doing this because I am a concerned father,” Lewis said. “I’m concerned about the future of this country. I’m concerned about our kids’ future. I’m concerned about our parents’ future. Congress goes from crisis to crisis. When I look at Congress, I see a real urban-rural divide. I want to go back there and be a strong voice for Montana as a rural state.”