Democrat Willis Curdy, left, faces off against Republican Brad Tschida, right, in the race for SD 49. Photos courtesy Montana Legislature.

Montana’s Senate District 49 has all the makings of a picture-perfect swing seat. 

Spanning from just outside the Missoula urban core to Alberton, it includes, in close proportion, both reliably Democratic and Republican voters, urban and rural Montanans, men and women. 

And for the entirety of its existence, it’s been represented by one person: the influential, long-tenured state Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. But Sands, who took the seat in 2014 following a 31-vote victory over the late lawmaker Dick Haines and fended off former UM Grizzlies football star Chase Reynolds — both Republicans — four years later is now termed out.

“It’s about as close to a 50-50 seat as you’ll get in Montana. It is the big one.”

Scott McNeil, Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee

Her departure leaves an open path for either party to take the district in an election year where Democrats hope to hold as much ground as possible against a surging Montana GOP that needs only two more seats than it currently holds to achieve a bicameral legislative supermajority. SD 49, as one of a handful of the state’s presumptively competitive districts, is at the center of both ambitions. In the background are major policy debates about abortion, housing affordability and the economy. 

“It’s about as close to a 50-50 seat as you’ll get in Montana,” said Scott McNeil, who heads the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which provides resources and guidance to Democratic legislative candidates. “It is the big one.” 

Vying to replace Sands are two legislative veterans. Rep. Brad Tschida, a Republican, has represented House District 97, which makes up SD 49’s rural western half, since 2014. Rep. Willis Curdy, a Democrat, is his next-door neighbor on the district map, having represented House District 98, the Senate district’s urban component, for the same amount of time. If anything, the district leans slightly blue — President Joe Biden carried it by a couple of points in 2020, and HD 98 is more solidly Democratic than HD 97 is solidly Republican — but it’s still widely considered a toss-up, especially without Sands’ incumbency advantage in play.

Senate District 49 includes both reliably Republican House District 97 and reliably Democratic House District 98 (Courtesy Montana Secretary of State)

Curdy, a former teacher and wildland firefighter, presents himself as a bipartisan collaborator who can represent both urban and rural voters. 

“I’ve been in the minority for eight years,” he told Montana Free Press last week. “I’ve been able to get a lot of legislation through, and I’ve worked with moderate Republicans quite often. I like to think of myself as going back to the days when people talked, you can work together on common issues.”

Tschida, a realtor who’s lived in the Missoula area since the 1960s, is an unabashed conservative who spearheaded efforts to audit the county’s election systems and hews to an anti-abortion hard line. The state doesn’t need more laws, he said — it needs to refine those that work and eliminate those that don’t. 

Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, is running a tight race for Senate District 49 (Courtesy Montana Legislature)

“I’ve built a pretty solid reputation with my peers as someone who’s going to be straightforward with what I say,” he told MTFP. “I’m going to make my ‘yes’ my ‘yes’ and my ‘no’ my ‘no.’ I don’t trade things off.”

Both say they recognize the potential significance of their race to the overall makeup of the Legislature, and have been hitting the doors in high volume in both halves of the district accordingly. Tschida has about $23,000 in campaign cash on hand as of August, while Curdy has $45,000. So far Curdy has been spending at a faster clip. The race has also attracted some independent outside spending: the PAC affiliated with the libertarian-conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity spent more than $12,000 in August to support Tschida, while the Wild Montana voter fund — the political spending arm of the conservation group Wild Montana — has spent about $2,000 to support Curdy. 

“I’m concerned about the other side having a supermajority,” Curdy said. “A lot of folks I talk to at the doors are really concerned about that. They can see some of their freedoms go away.”

Republicans broadened their legislative majority in the 2020 elections — a year that saw them sweep into every statewide office as well — and currently hold a 31-19 advantage in the Senate and a 67-33 advantage in the House. Winning just two more seats in the Legislature would give the GOP a supermajority, allowing the party to pass certain proposals that require a two-thirds vote without Democratic support — namely constitutional amendment ballot initiatives

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The prospect of such a majority has emerged as a Democratic message across the state this election season, especially as legal battles over abortion restrictions passed in the 2021 legislative session are poised to test the longevity of state Supreme Court precedent shielding access to the procedure under the right to privacy. 

“If the MTGOP win a legislative supermajority this November, they’ll have the numbers to put forward constitutional amendments that would make abortion illegal, & carve out our reproductive rights & privacy from the constitution,” the Montana Democratic Party states on its website.

Tschida said he’s running with no preconceptions about the benefits of a supermajority for Republicans, though he understands why the state Democratic Party might be worried about Republicans expanding their margins. 

“I can see the concern,” he said. “But here’s my question: Why is it that the Republican majority is growing? That’s a question they need to answer. What I’ve heard from people is that Republicans are listening to [them].”

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula

Tschida said voters he’s talked to are concerned about taxes, inflation and drugs in their communities. He said some are concerned about public lands access — an ever-present priority for Democrats — but that it’s a small concern compared to livability issues. 

Both candidates say they’re hearing about housing affordability, arguably Missoula’s most important policy challenge, and see a possibility of relief in easing local zoning restrictions in order to accelerate the development of housing stock. 

“I hear horror stories every day about people being told they have a month to get out and now here they are looking for a place to live, and there’s little out there for them to choose from,” Curdy said. 

Tschida has more specifically focused on property tax relief, and was at the forefront of a push over the last month to gather the Legislature in special session in order to spend down the state’s budget surplus in the form of property tax rebates. That effort failed. Curdy was one of several lawmakers who did not respond to a special session poll issued last month, effectively casting a “no” vote. Tschida criticized Curdy in an interview with MTFP for not taking a public stand on the issue.

“If that’s the extent to which he’s serving as a representative to the people, that’s a whiff on his part,” Tschida said. 

Curdy said that while he’s not opposed to a rebate in principle, he thinks the state would be better served if lawmakers take their time to allocate the budget surplus in the regular session. And, like some other detractors of the special session push, Curdy saw the effort as a political game to gain points with voters in a close race.

“Of course it’s a way to gin-up votes,” Curdy said. “Who wouldn’t like whatever he’s asking for? We have some big issues that are potentially going to cost taxpayers a lot of money. To have a refund and then turn around and have to raise taxes makes no sense whatsoever. It’s going to take a good share of the legislative session to figure it out.”

One open question is how much the erosion of abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision — an issue national Democrats are counting on to animate both the base and independent voters despite President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings — will play in the race. The party is looking to the recent defeat of a ballot referendum that would have removed abortion protections in Kansas, a state that supported Trump over Biden by 15 points in 2020, as evidence the issue will resonate far beyond traditional Democratic voters.

Tschida has made his stance on the issue clear, making headlines in July after asserting in an email to other lawmakers that the womb “is truly a sanctuary [for the unborn]” that serves no other “specific purpose to [a woman’s] life or well-being.” Curdy called those comments “creepy.” 

The Dobbs decision, Tschida said, correctly reverted abortion policy to the states. As far as Montana’s own abortion protections go — in the 1990s, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s broad privacy provision shields access to abortion — Tschida said “it’s something that needs to be reviewd and evaluated.

“We need to go back and look at the intent of the 1972 Constitutional Convention and find out what they meant by a right to privacy,” he continued.

Curdy said voters he’s speaking with are concerned about the overall issue of women’s freedom to make their own health care decisions, while Tschida said the only blowback he’s heard is from a small number of “unabashed, hardcore, pro-abortion Democrats.” 

Nonetheless, McNeil said, he believes Dobbs will resonate with voters, and that Tschida’s hard line on abortion will hurt the Republican in a diverse district. 

“Willis Curdy’s best fundraiser is Brad Tschida,” he said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.