Date of Award

Spring 1989

Document Type



Political Science & International Relations

First Advisor

Dennis Wiedmann

Second Advisor

Robert Swartout

Third Advisor

Ted Schwinden


In 1988, the most widely discussed political phenomenon in the state of Montana was the defeat of United States Senator John Melcher. Much speculation and debate has arisen as to why he, as an incumbent, was unseated by Republican Conrad Burns. This event was even more unusual in light of the fact that it was only the second time that the voters of Montana had elected a Republican to the United States Senate. In 1946, Burton K. Wheeler, a four-term U.S. senator, was defeated in the Democratic primary and was succeeded by Zales Ecton. Why did Wheeler and Melcher lose? Were these chance occurrences? Did they do an ineffective job of campaigning? Do these elections represent watershed events in Montana politics? In this thesis I intend to show that the defeat of John Melcher in 1988 and Burton K. Wheeler in 1946 are explainable through an examination of Montana's political culture. By evaluating the historical development of Montana's political culture, we can see that these two unusual electoral outcomes are actually phenomena consistent with the state's political makeup, and should be a valuable lesson to future politicians who seek statewide office.