Today we have an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at the political phenomenon known as the Lincoln-Reagan dinner. Lincoln-Reagan dinners, for those who do not know, are the county GOP banquets where candidates show up to mingle with local party activists, make speeches and look for primary votes. Well, several contributors to this blog have been in attendance at a few of these affairs this season. They took notes, and have debriefed me on these dismal gatherings.
To begin with, the overwhelming majority of attendees are senior citizens, many pushing 70. There are few young people except for the staff of some of the candidates. Mostly it is older couples, who arrive, two by two, dressed as if they were coming to a square-dance-slash-funeral. Also, I asked one of my moles whether there was a lot of big, boofed-up hair, something I’ve noticed before at GOP gatherings. The answer is yes.
Before the dinner starts, there is some sober mingling and discussion. Lately the hot topic of conversation is Judge Cebull. Cebull is the judge who forwarded a racist “joke” about the President’s mother having sex with animals. The talk goes something like this: “Yes, Cebull shouldn’t have sent the email. But you gotta admit, that joke was damn funny! Hardy HAW har har.”
The GOP Chairman Will Deschamps kicks off the dinner with his personal greatest concern: that Missoula Republicans are losing legislative seats not because of ideas or ideology, but because of a gerrymadering conpsiracy perpetrated by the Democrats. He insists that the Democrats believe in political redistricting, whereas the Republican Party approaches redistricting with a totally unbiased, non-partisan mind frame. Hence the lopsided advantage for Democrats in Missoula.
Then Congressman Dennis Rehberg is introduced and makes a speech in which he pines for the days of Conrad Burns. He tells Burns’ jokes, and then launches into jokes about President Obama. These get loud guffaws and the biggest cheers of the evening.
Subsequent speakers, including Steve Daines and the Gubernatorial candidates, also trash Obama. It’s all the rage.
Predictably, the speakers rant against Schweitzer, Tester, and Bullock. They are angry that Bullock didn’t join the “Obamacare lawsuit”, as they call it, and they all believe that this will have grave repercussions for Montana. They all praise Rehberg as their savior who will vanquish Tester who voted for health reform. How dare the government get involved in healthcare, the speakers all say, as the crowd (90 percent of which is on Medicare) responds excitedly.
But even though they despise Tester, the majority of anger is reserved for Schweitzer. I am told that they despise Schweitzer with a special type of invective, and that most speeches start with “We will finally be rid of Schweitzer,” which gets thundering applause.
After bashing Democrats and making moronic Obama jokes, the speeches all veer toward the same basic harangue: that Montana is “not developing natural resources like North Dakota and Wyoming because of excessive taxes and regulations.”
(In fact, as the Montana newspapers have pointed out in their own investigation of this claim, North Dakota has an entirely different oil formation–easier to access.) And, North Dakota Republicans spend their county dinners making the same complaints about their own taxes in relation to Montana’s taxes, which they view as more favorable to development. Indeed, Montana’s taxes related to oil and gas production are 40-50% lower than in North Dakota, and we have a faster permitting process than both North Dakota and Wyoming. Montana permits are out in 60 days on average. In Wyoming a permit takes ten months. It takes a year in North Dakota.
Notably absent from these revival meetings is any mention of the infamous 2011 legislature. It’s as if it never took place at all, which is strange when you consider that 2010′s Lincoln-Reagan dinners were rife with claims that the retaking of the legislature was of utmost importance for the state. Yet they are now unable to point to a single accomplishment, which is another way of admitting that the whole enterprise was a giant disaster and embarrassment for the party.
I was interested in one other item that was reported to me from these dinners. Apparently, Rick Hill loves to blame Schweitzer for the fact that the work comp premiums in Montana have, in the last two decades, been among the highest in the nation. What is hilarious about this is: 1) the system that existed up until last year was created by Rick Hill, when he was Chair of the Montana State Fund in the 1990s, 2) Neil Livingstone, Hill’s opponent, has publicly blamed Hill for the cost of work comp (audio here), 3) Jim Peterson and Mike Milburn (the GOP legislative leaders) have also publicly acknowledged that Hill is to blame, and 4), the legislature just revamped work comp and reduced premiums by 20%.
Fortunately, I’m told that on at least one occasion at a Lincoln-Reagan event, Zinke made some of these points after Hill had tried to divert the blame. This makes sense given that Zinke was one of the authors of the work comp overhaul that undid, after 18 years, the damage that Hill caused.