The biennial scramble for control of the Montana Legislature got its official start Monday with the state’s candidate filing deadline.
In total, 283 Montanans, 84 of them incumbents seeking re-election to their current seats, are angling for a chance to represent constituents as citizen legislators.
Republicans, who added to their legislative majority in the 2020 election’s historic red wave, say supermajority control of the Montana House and Senate may be within their reach this year.
“Our message is winning. We’ve seen over the past year that Montana is better under Republican leadership, stronger under Republican leadership,” said Montana GOP Communications Director Alden Tonkay. “We’re very confident in our message and our candidates.”
Democrats, for their part, are looking to prove that they can hold their ground.
“Our focus is to make sure Republicans aren’t able to get a supermajority,” said Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan.
“We are really proud of our slate of candidates,” Hogan said. “We have experienced legislators, we have teachers, we have police officers.”
More than half of the Democratic Party’s candidates are women, LGBTQ, or people of color, Hogan said.
Republicans currently control 67 seats in the 100-member Montana House and 31 in the 50-member Montana Senate. The remainder, 33 House seats and 19 Senate seats, are held by Democrats.
If Republicans can hold on to their current House seats and pick up three seats in the Senate, the party would gain the ability to unilaterally pass motions that require two-thirds majorities, such as rule-suspension votes or veto overrides — at least in situations where party leaders can keep their caucus united.
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Additionally, if the GOP wins a total of 100 seats between the House and Senate, Republicans would have the power to put constitutional amendments before Montana voters on party-line votes.
In contrast, Democrats would have to pick up 18 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate to win back simple majorities in those chambers. Democrats last held a majority of seats in the Montana Senate in 2007, and of the Montana House in 1991.
While many lawmakers will face tough re-election campaigns, 26 candidates will be elected or re-elected by default without facing an opponent this year.
That list, mostly Republicans, includes many well-established incumbents, such as House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad. It also includes some first-time GOP legislative candidates running for open seats, such as Russel Miner in House District 19 (rural Cascade County) and Nelly Nicol in House District 53 (west of Billings).
In another eight House districts and two Senate districts, only Republican candidates filed, making the June primary the deciding election.
For example, in House District 11 (south of Kalispell), incumbent Rep. Derek Skees is facing term limits and running for a seat on the state Public Service Commission. Three Republicans and no Democrats have filed to fill his shoes, including his wife, Ronalee Skees, Devon Decker and Tanner Smith.
On the other side of the state, Senate District 20 is open, as longtime Colstrip-area lawmaker Duane Ankney is term-limited out of office. Ankney’s seat will be the subject of a likely vigorous primary campaign between two experienced state representatives, House Local Government Chair Geraldine Custer and House Judiciary Chair Barry Usher, both Republicans. No Democrats have filed for the office.
Most of the districts without Democratic challengers are deep-red parts of the state, where a Democratic candidate would face an uphill battle for votes. In House District 1 around Libby, for example, President Donald Trump won by 44 percentage points in 2020 and incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Gunderson won by 42.
House District 78, encompassing Deer Lodge and Warm Springs, is an exception. It was for years represented by Democratic Rep. Gordon Pierson, and delivered a 15-point victory margin to Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016 even as it voted for Donald Trump at the presidential level by double digits.
The district’s voters, though, cast their support to Republicans up and down the ballot in 2020, electing GOP Rep. Gregory Frazer and delivering Gov. Greg Gianforte an 11-point margin. Frazer is running for re-election with only a Republican primary opponent.
“We’ve targeted areas that we know we can win,” said Democratic Party chair Hogan. “We have a plan to win those districts with really solid, experienced candidates.”
Two Democrats in the House, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, and Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, are running without Republican opposition. Both are Native lawmakers representing majority-Native districts.
On the plus side for Democrats, Republicans’ 2020 gains mean most of the toss-up seats in the Montana House are now GOP-held — and potentially within reach if Democratic candidates can win back enough swing voters who cast their lot with Republicans last cycle.
House District 96 in northwest Missoula, for example, has bounced between Republican and Democratic representation in recent election cycles. Voters there elected GOP Rep. Kathy Whitman by a three-point margin in 2020 even as they split narrowly toward Democrats in gubernatorial and presidential races. Whitman is seeking a second term against a challenge from Democrats Jonathan Karlen and Linda Swanson.
Several swing seats in Great Falls will also play important roles in deciding the Legislature’s 2023 power balance. House District 23’s GOP Rep. Scot Kerns, who beat longtime Democratic lawmaker Brad Hamlett in 2020 by a 107-vote margin, is facing a challenge from Hamlett and another Democrat, Melissa Smith.
In House District 24 (central Great Falls) another former Democratic representative, Barbara Besette, is also seeking a rematch against GOP Rep. Steven Galloway, who beat her by 7 points in 2020. Besette was elected to her first term representing the district by 5 points in 2018.
On the Senate side, the departure of term-limited Republican lawmaker Sen. Brian Hoven leaves an open seat in Senate District 13 (north Great Falls). Former House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, who ran for lieutenant governor as Mike Cooney’s running mate in 2020, is facing off in that district against current GOP Rep. Jeremy Trebas.
Montana’s state senators are elected to four-year terms. This year, 24 Senate seats, 16 held by Republicans and 8 by Democrats, are out of cycle. State representatives are elected to two-year terms, meaning they face voters every election cycle.
The primary election is scheduled for June 7 and the general election for Nov. 8.
Know something MTFP should know about one of these races or candidates? Think a specific race in your neck of the woods deserves coverage from a statewide media outlet? Want us to grill legislative candidates about particular issues? Reach out to reporter Eric Dietrich, who is covering this year’s legislative races, at email@example.com.
This story was updated March 16 to correct the spelling of candidate Russel Miner’s name. The primary graphic in this story was updated April 7 with then-current candidate filing data, which included at least two candidates excluded from the listing available immediately after the close of filing March 14.
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