He’d been set to debate Governor Marc Racicot in Missoula but died on the way.
He’d had problems with his heart for years – a heart attack while driving to the 1980 Democratic National Convention in Chicago being a key incident – and while passing by Deer Lodge he pulled over and managed to call an ambulance.
They were sending the helicopter to pick him up when he died.
It was less than two weeks to the election and Democrats were thrown into a quandary.
What to do…who to run…how to save face when they’d already done such a good job losing it that year already?
You see, no one would run against Racicot.
It’s real convenient to blame Blaylock’s death for Racicot’s second term, but we’d be doing ourselves a disservice, just the same as we would if we blamed Judy Jacobson.
Blaylock should of course be commended for doing what no other Democrat had the balls to do – run for governor against a popular candidate.
At the time every single statewide Democrat, every single Democrat in the legislature, and every single small town or big city Democrat was too afraid to run.
Well, that’s not quite true…Bob Kelleher ran.
You can always count on Bob Kelleher to show up.
We can’t say the same for others…most of the time…but….
“But the unwillingness of any Democrat to run for governor in 1996 pulled him from retirement.
Most political observers considered Blaylock a sacrificial lamb in his campaign against the popular incumbent Republican, Gov. Marc Racicot, who held an 8-to-1 lead in polls in mid-October.
While Blaylock openly acknowledged his reluctance for an uphill battle, he was unwilling to admit defeat.
Don’t write me off. Things can change,” he said. He insisted the Democratic Party needed someone in the race willing to hold Racicot accountable.”
That’s what the Idaho Spokesman said the day after Blaylock died.
Blaylock would try to hold Racicot accountable, but no other Democrat would.
It’s not surprising, really – Democrats couldn’t even hold themselves accountable.
So slim was their bench in 1988 that they felt their best chance at winning the governor’s office again was to run the man that’d left it in 1980.
While the race was close (52% to 46%, with the Dems losing) the signs were clear for all to see – Democrats were on the way out.
They hadn’t had the Montana Senate since ’85 and they’d lost the House in ’91.
They lost the governor’s office in ’88 to Stephens and then in ’92 Racicot picked it up when Stephens went back to Havre.
The year 1988 would be the first time since 1964 that Republicans won the Montana governor’s office, and it’d be the first time since 1968 and Forrest Anderson that Democrats didn’t have it.
It’d be a hard decade, with deregulation, the further loss of union jobs, and more young people leaving the state, replaced by older transplants that didn’t need to worry about things like wages for themselves or schools for their kids.
They’d made their money somewhere else, and their kids had long since gone off to college, started careers of their own for the most part.
They brought their Republican values, wore them on their shirtsleeves, and Democrats became depressed and despondent because of it.
How can we win now…where will we get the numbers…will the cities be enough for us…why is this happening to us!?!
No amount of complaining would change the reality, however, and that reality was simple – Montana Democrats were on the way out.
Most shrugged their shoulders, said they’d get ‘em ‘next time.’ Most did, but not all. Chet Blaylock didn’t.
The guy had to come out of retirement because no ‘up-and-coming’ Democrats had the balls to run.
I really shouldn’t say ‘up-and-coming’ as I can’t think of anyone from that time period that went anywhere. If they did, they’re certainly not on the field of play today.
And really, if Racicot was so popular in ‘96…why’d Rob Natelson pull in nearly 29,000 votes in the primary that year, or 24% of the vote?
Maybe Racicot wasn’t so popular…maybe he could have been beaten.
Oh, how much better our lives would have been.
Probably not beaten by Blaylock – polls showed him to be continuously down in the numbers – but someone else might have.
But there was no one else, because just as Montana Democrats keep it today, the bench back in 1996 was empty.
You can’t really blame Chet Blaylock for that loss, both because he died and because no one thought he had a serious chance to begin with.
Before they even started, Montana Democrats had admitted defeat.
It’s a perennial problem with the Party, one that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
Now, as we look forward to 2020, that bench is as empty as ever.
Just like 1988, however, Montana Democrats will likely throw an old favorite at voters rather than risk too many questions about, or stumbles with, a new candidate.
Perhaps Gianforte will win that year, if that’s the case.
Then in 2024 Montana Democrats can hang back, say the guy’s unbeatable, and wallow in their closed-off circles of self-pity.
I’m not sure there’ll be a Chet Blaylock around then to ‘save’ them.
Perhaps that’s for the best.