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It’s been decades since a single political party swept a Montana election. Political watchers could be forgiven, then, for expecting the Nov. 3 results to continue the state’s long tradition of split-ticket politics. Instead, Republicans won every seat on the statewide ballot, from president to state auditor, and expanded their majority in the state Legislature for good measure.

“I was completely shocked,” said Rep. Barbara Bessette, one of several Democratic lawmakers unseated last week in Cascade County, referring to the lopsided Republican wins there.

The decisive victories across many counties surprised more than just Democrats. 

“I was as surprised at the margins as everyone else,” said Jeff Essmann, a former state lawmaker and GOP party chairman from Billings.

Essmann noted that when he started in the state Legislature in 2005, Cascade County was dominated by Democrats. In the 2004 election, Cascade County voters chose seven Democrats and two Republicans to represent them in the Montana House. This year, every state representative elected in the county is Republican.

Great Falls isn’t the only place in the state where Republicans made significant gains this year. Preliminary vote counts show Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte having beaten Democrat Mike Cooney by nearly 13 percentage points across the state — roughly the same margin by which Matt Rosendale took the U.S. House seat in his race against Kathleen Williams. Incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines won his race against Gov. Steve Bullock by a slightly smaller but still substantial 10%. 

In the down-ballot races for attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and superintendent of public instruction, Republicans beat Democratic candidates by margins ranging from eight to 20 percentage points. Only one Democrat, superintendent of public instruction candidate Melissa Romano, managed to keep the gap between her and her GOP opponent, incumbent superintendent Elsie Arntzen, to single digits.

Montana voters have historically been ticket splitters — reliably supporting Republican presidential candidates over the past two decades, but often choosing Democrats for other offices. In 2004, for example, the state backed Republican President George W. Bush by more than 20 percentage points even as it elected Democrat Brian Schweitzer governor.

Voters that year also sent Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg back to Washington, D.C. by 30 points while picking Democrats to serve as superintendent of public Instruction and state auditor by 10-point margins.

But recent presidential elections, with Donald Trump atop the ticket, have seen Montana turn more red. In 2016, Gov. Bullock was the only Democrat to win a statewide race. This year, Republicans not only won every statewide race on the ballot, they did so by hefty margins.

Longtime political watchers say the Republican dominance in 2020 can be attributed to a combination of factors. 

“It’s not what the Republicans did right. It’s what the Democrats did bad,” said one Republican official who requested anonymity to comment candidly. “It was kind of the perfect storm that just kicked the shit out of them.” 

In interviews with Montana Free Press, nearly a dozen elected officials, campaign strategists, and political analysts described what they believe are the reasons behind the results, citing the popularity of President Trump and national attacks against the Democratic Party and the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout and the ways in which the virus complicated campaign strategy.

Throughout the general campaign, Montana Democrats faced a slew of negative messaging that aligned them with divisive national figures and issues. One attack ad against Bullock featured a narrator saying the candidate was supported by “the liberal mob” and included images of people jumping on a police vehicle — a reference to protests against racial injustice that swept the country this summer. In her race for the U.S. House, Williams was depicted as supporting policies that were too “extreme” for Montana and more ideologically aligned with California, where she was born. 

The coronavirus pandemic made it harder for candidates to defend themselves against those attacks by limiting their ability to campaign in-person, Democrats said.

“Ultimately, it was less face-to-face time,” said state House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, who has represented a Great Falls district since 2013 and was on the ballot this year as Democrat Mike Cooney’s running mate in the race for governor.

Democratic campaigns still held in-person events, such as drive-in rallies, but decided against aggressive door-knocking and community engagement because they were worried about spreading the virus. Republicans, for their part, were less cautious about the virus, holding larger gatherings and rallies that allowed for more direct contact between candidates and voters.

When Democratic candidates have won Montana in the past, Schreiner said, it’s been by diligent shoe leather campaigning — talking to enough of their neighbors that they get a critical mass of voters to see past national partisanship and cast ballots for candidates as individuals.

“For some reason, voting for the individual didn’t seem to happen this time,” Schreiner said.

Voter turnout was also a factor in this year’s election, though not in the way that many observers expected. 

While Montana Democrats have historically presumed that higher voter turnout would work in their party’s favor, this year’s record turnout — 100,000 voters more than the number who cast ballots in 2016 — appears to have benefited Republicans.

In his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, for example, Bullock received more than 272,000 votes, 16,000 more than he received when he won re-election as governor in 2016. But Bullock’s opponent, Daines, received more than 333,000 votes this year — nearly 78,000 more than he’d won when he was first elected to the Senate in 2014.

Increased voter participation was partly due to the fact that 46 of 56 Montana counties chose  to conduct all-mail elections in light of the pandemic, mailing ballots to active registered voters regardless of whether they had previously signed up to vote by mail. 

Some prominent Democrats who were involved with statewide campaigns said the increase in new voters likely included Montanans who were not previously engaged with politics. 

“Low-information, low-propensity voters. People who don’t vote all the time and people who aren’t on Twitter and not reading the newspaper and not seeking new information,” said one Democratic politician who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the election.

Many of those voters, the Democrat said, voted a ticket informed primarily by their preference for a presidential candidate who campaigned aggressively against the Democratic Party. 

“Trump truly has a unique way of nationalizing everything. Now there are newly engaged voters with a ballot on their doorstep. They’re going to know about Trump and not much else,” he said. 

This wave of new voters especially affected down-ballot candidates without substantial name recognition. Democrats hoping to ride the coattails of Bullock and Biden weren’t able to compete with Republicans enjoying the boosted turnout driven by Trump, Daines, and Congressman Gianforte. 

“I think that what we learned this election cycle is that Montana is a very conservative state and when new people vote in this political process, they vote in a very conservative way,” the Democrat said.

Other politicians and strategists say the high mail-ballot turnout alone doesn’t account for the dramatic margins.

Jake Eaton, a GOP strategist who worked on the Gianforte campaign, said he believes Republicans won by such large margins in part because their message was compelling to independent voters and the party was effective at getting its base to turn out and vote.

Internal polling data, Eaton said, indicated Montana voters were worried less about the health care issues Democrats focused on than about their livelihoods, particularly given the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic. 

Other Republicans and some Democrats concurred, citing a perception that the Democratic Party has become increasingly disconnected from low- and middle-income people and communities.

“[Democrats] kind of lost touch with who their voters have been over the years. They don’t really represent the working class voter anymore,” said Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls. “It’s kind of become the party of the narrow elite, highly educated people from university towns.”

“To a certain degree, their base has just washed away,” he continued. “If that’s your party — rich liberals — you’re not going to win in the state of Montana.”

Asked about Fitzpatrick’s analysis, the Democrat quoted earlier said, “I agree with all that. Of course you need a jobs message. Of course you need a working people’s message . . .  it’s the economy, stupid.”

Despite their failure to appeal to a winning coalition of voters statewide, Democrats did maintain strong support in university towns this year, as well as a majority of the vote in Butte and several counties with large Native American populations. Bullock, for example, won 64% of the vote in Missoula County and 55% of the vote in Gallatin County, around Bozeman. He also won 65% of the vote in Butte-Silver Bow County, down from 70% in 2016, as well as 70% of the 2020 vote in Glacier County, which includes most of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

With the 2020 election season in the rearview mirror, the Republican Party is turning its attention to the jobs Montana voters have handed its candidates: governing the state. Democrats, for their part, are facing a journey into the political wilderness, looking to recalibrate the party so it can compete in the next election cycle and further Montana’s legacy of purple politics.

Some Democrats are hoping to change how the party organizes around the state, making the case that short-term campaign cycles don’t translate to sustained support or grassroots relationships.

“I think it’s about empowering people to be connected to their community,” said Rep. Bessette. “And you can’t do that coming in six months before Election Day or before people get their ballot.”

Bessette, who has spent years working on public health issues and substance abuse prevention, said she wants Montana Democrats to start thinking about political organizing in a similar way.

“We use local organizing and coalition building,” she said about countering drug and alcohol abuse. “You’re going to the local level because they’re the ones who know what they need … We don’t think about long-term solutions and sustainability [in politics]. It’s short-term. Whatever big shiny campaign there is comes in — and then they leave.”

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.

Mara Silvers

Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.