On the final day of the 2019 Legislature, Rep. Nancy Ballance rose on the House floor to admonish Republican leadership for removing her from a vital legislative fiscal committee. The four-term Republican from Hamilton focused her rebuke on the sexist optics of replacing an experienced female lawmaker with a freshman male, but the unspoken political implications of her replacement escaped no one: Ballance had split from the majority of the Republication delegation and sided with Solutions Caucus Republican and Democrats to support the renewal of Medicaid expansion — a vote that House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, a fierce opponent of expansion, warned would require an answer “to the people back home.”
Of the roughly dozen legislative primaries pitting Solutions Caucus lawmakers against right-flanking challengers in 2020, none provides a starker example of the electoral consequences Tschida predicted than the showdown over an open seat in Senate District 44. On one side of the fight to represent the central Bitterroot Valley is Ballance, term-limited out of her House seat and motivated by the twin pillars of economic growth and job creation. On the other is fellow Hamilton Rep. Theresa Manzella, a self-professed champion of constitutional and party principles who waived a bid for a fourth House term in the name of the larger battle over the heart of the Republican Party. Both describe themselves as reluctant-yet-determined contenders, each spurred on by the other’s presence, and each fervently unwilling to accept the other’s victory.
“There was a lot of discussion with my conservative colleagues and the Republican leadership team, and I was strongly encouraged to run for the Senate seat because there is a very concerted effort being made by we conservatives to hold the line on conservative principles and traditional Republican values of limited government,” Manzella said. “And there is also a concerted effort being made to take the party to the left.”
The deep stakes propelling the race for SD 44 to prominence are laid bare in online posts, campaign literature and finance reports filed with the state. As of May 14, Ballance had reported raising $45,705 (including a personal loan of $38,000) and spending $43,433. Manzella had reported $20,104 in contributions (including a personal loan of $6,000) and $19,015 in expenditures, making the contest one of the most expensive primary races in memory. The more than two-to-one raise and spend ratio has prompted Manzella to paint the race as a “David and Goliath” story. Ballance, meanwhile, casts her campaign’s aggressive spending as necessary to combat a robust and misleading messaging campaign by outside forces bent on defeating her. Among those forces is the political committee Doctors for a Healthy Montana, which reported spending $6,630 between January and late April opposing a number of Solutions Caucus candidates, including Ballance.
A review of the committee’s Facebook page reveals scores of posts claiming Medicaid expansion led to a rise in abortions and transgender surgeries in Montana — claims that Ballance and other Republican expansion supporters vehemently refute. The committee, which Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan recently found in violation of campaign practice law, lists Republican state Rep. Matt Regier as its treasurer. Annie Bukacek, a Kalispell-based doctor and anti-abortion activist who endorsed Manzella and has touted her record several times on Facebook, is listed as deputy treasurer for Doctors for a Healthy Montana, and has personally contributed $4,100 to the committee.
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“Unfortunately, in the election cycle what Medicaid has turned into is abortion, transgender surgeries, permanent entitlements, great cost to the taxpayers,” says Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, the Republican progenitor of Montana’s Medicaid expansion and one of the House incumbents currently facing a primary challenge over the issue. “Those are the soundbites that we’ve had out there, and they simply have zero truth.”
Talk to the candidates themselves, however, and the fact that the contest between Ballance and Manzella has come to embody the broader consequences of the Solutions Caucus’ perceived defection from party principles becomes complicated. For starters, Manzella’s characterization of Ballance as a “tax-and-spend Republican” runs counter to Ballance’s political roots.
Between 2008 and 2010, Ballance emerged in Bitterroot politics as one of the founding faces of the valley’s tea party movement. That groundswell of conservatism coalesced around the ideals of lower taxes and smaller government, and often butted heads with the GOP establishment of the time. But it was the impatience of many within that movement, and its dissipation when change failed to come quickly, that Ballance said taught her an important lesson.
When Buttrey forwarded Medicaid expansion in the 2015 session, Ballance was among those Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to vote the measure down. Only after expansion was implemented and she had a chance to review the data on its impacts to Montana’s health care system and taxpayers did Ballance revisit her position, though she’s quick to note that she’s “still not happy with it.”
“Seeing that information and seeing much more closely who are these people, why are they on the program, what would happen if there was no program available, that convinced me that we had to have something,” Ballance said. “And the only thing that we could do quickly and effectively across the entire state was Medicaid expansion.”
The battle for SD 44 reflects not just a schism between two factions, but a rift between allies. Prior to what she sees as a change in Ballance’s ideology, Manzella said, she held her opponent in “high regard.” Manzella said Medicaid expansion is by far the deepest divide between the two today — a divide that she believes underscores Ballance’s ideological shift and positions Manzella as the “people’s candidate.” Manzella traces the split even further back, to a vote in the latter days of the 2017 session, when Ballance helped bring enough Republicans alongside Democrats to pass a gas tax increase of 4.5 cents per gallon to fund road improvements. Republicans were aware the vote would be close, and Manzella, who saw the bill as contrary to core Republican values, said Ballance’s vote for the tax registered as a “very painful loss” for herself and other conservatives.
“It was that vote that caused the divide between myself and Rep. Ballance,” Manzella said, “and she hasn’t had a kind word to say to me since.”
Neither has Manzella had kind words to say about Ballance during the run-up to this spring’s primary election. The exchange of barbs has been constant, and the high-stakes nature of the race has rippled outward, setting up contests for several Bitterroot House districts that could either expand the Solutions Caucus’ influence or shore up the numbers for the bloc of staunchly conservative lawmakers Manzella proudly calls the .38 Special. Two of Ballance’s fellow Solutions Caucus members, Reps. David Bedey and Sharon Greef, are being challenged in the June 2 primary, while Republican Michele Binkley is seeking to succeed Manzella in House District 85 with Manzella’s resounding endorsement.
Ultimately, the outcome of the SD 44 primary could answer a sort of prophecy that arose from the tea party movement Ballance helped nurture a decade ago. At the time, then-Montana Republican Party Chair Will Deschamps viewed the movement with an arched eyebrow, excited by its members’ passion but critical of their my-way-or-the-highway attitude. As he told the Missoula Independent in fall 2009, “I think they’re looking for someone that’s just absolutely this perfect white knight that will ride to their rescue and never deviate.”
Ballance may have been a part of that movement, but she acknowledges that political realism and responsibility to her constituents prompted her to make a choice that she argues has saved taxpayers money and benefited the people on whom a strong economy relies. Manzella has positioned herself as the white knight of unbending conservatism Deschamps once described. Whether Bitterroot Republicans are now looking for purity or pragmatism is precisely what will be decided on June 2.
This story was updated May 23, 2020, to correct the amount that Nancy Ballance has loaned her campaign. The amount is $38,000, not $30,000, as was originally reported.