Though they roundly reject the conservatives' policy views, some of the state's progressives hope to use similar grassroots tactics to gain clout, oust incumbents and affect the Democratic Party's nominations.
The moves come after the state's Democratic establishment failed with a more traditional attempt to win a Senate race.
Earlier this year, the state's Democratic governor appointed his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to fill a vacant Senate seat. Walsh's campaign fell apart after the New York Times reported that he plagiarized his U.S. Army War College master's thesis.
Bob Brigham, a Helena-based advisor for Democrats and progressive groups, said that many of the state's liberal activists were never happy with Walsh's selection, and they kept the pressure up for him to withdraw after the scandal.
But even before that, he said progressives had played an outsize role in getting the Democrat who Walsh replaced — former Sen. Max Baucus — to not run for re-election. Progressives said they felt Baucus cared more about Beltway deal-making than advancing progressive ideals, and he was seen as corrupt, out-of-touch, and unprincipled.
Brigham argues that a significant contributing factor to Baucus’s decision to bow out was the threat of a primary challenger from the left.
“If the Left wants to make a stink and veto somebody, we have the power to do that,” he said.
“For local progressives, they saw, ‘Hey, when we stand up and complain, we got Baucus off the ballot. We can do that again,’ ” he added.
He argued that progressives now have a chance to get their own candidate at the Aug. 16 special nominating convention. Grassroots organizers often have more success getting their candidates elected at conventions than via gubernatorial appointments or primaries, since conventions empower activists willing to spend hours or even weekends at conference centers lobbying for their heroes.
“Progressives are beating the Tea Party at their own game,” he said.
His optimism is far from universal. George Ochenski, a columnist for the Missoulian, said that progressives often haven’t seen their efforts rewarded. He cited Democratic Sen. Jon Tester as a case in point.
“There were tons of progressives who worked like hell to get Jon elected, raised serious amounts of money for him who would never lift a finger to help him out now,” he emailed.
And he said progressives have only seen limited success in moving the state’s Democratic Party to the left.
“Simply put, our Dems are about two steps to the left of the Republicans and certainly in the middle of the road on virtually every issue,” he wrote. “So, who are the progressives going to get to represent their point of view?”
Paul Edwards, a former member of the executive board of the Montana Democratic Party and current member of the Montana Environmental Information Center board of directors, said there is “virtually no progressive wing or element or influence whatsoever in Montana.”
“I think the Democrats are going to get their ass handed to them this election in many ways, and they’re definitely going to lose to [Republican candidate Steve] Daines no matter who they nominate,” he said.
Former state Sen. Ken Toole, who heads progressive think tank the Policy Institute, is also pessimistic about progressives’ influence in the state, and said the waning power of labor unions in the state has limited their clout.
“That has made us suffer,” he said.
He added that he thinks Amanda Curtis, a state representative, would be progressives’ best bet to face Daines.