This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
Legislative campaign season in Montana is well underway, with the two parties and their candidates looking to see how national issues like the president’s approval rating, the erosion of abortion rights and inflation will play in the local races that will determine the breadth of the Republican majority in the 2023 session.
The GOP has to pick up just two seats across the entire Legislature to gain the two-thirds supermajority needed to send constitutional amendments to voters without Democratic support. The minority party is intent on making sure that doesn’t happen.
The possibility of such a majority hinges on a handful of contested races in districts that have swung both left and right over the last decade. Among the highest-profile is Senate District 49, where Reps. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, and Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, are vying for the open seat vacated by term-limited Democratic Sen. Diane Sands. The district spans from Missoula well out into the county, incorporating both likely Republican and Democratic voters in close proportion.
“It is the big one,” Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Director Scott McNeil told MTFP in a story about the race last week.
SD 49 is one of five districts that MDLCC has highlighted as top priorities. Another key race is in the GOP-leaning Great Falls-area Senate District 13, where former House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner is going up against Republican state Rep. Jeremy Trebas. Next door, former Havre-area Democrat Jacob Bachmeier is taking on Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, for the open Senate District 12 seat vacated by Democrat Carlie Boland. In the House, a number of Democrats, including former lawmakers Barbara Bessette and Jasmine Krotkov, are looking to claw back territory lost to Republicans in 2020 in Great Falls.
Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who chairs the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, said his party is targeting 31 legislative seats, including the five named by Democrats: SD 49, SD 13, Senate District 32, House District 77 and House District 42.
“In the last several election cycles, Republicans have continued to provide Montana voters with the policies and budgetary control they expect from their Legislature,” Hertz told MTFP. “We expect to maintain our existing legislative seats along with picking up a few seats currently held by Democrats.”
In Senate District 32, which spans from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, Democratic Sen. Pat Flowers seeks to fend off Republican challenger Randy Chamberlin. In House District 77, Republican John Fitzpatrick looks to replace Democratic incumbent Sara Novak in the Anaconda-Drummond-Philipsburg seat. In House District 42, Republicans are looking to oust Sharon Stewart-Peregoy from her Crow Agency-area seat. Stewart-Peregoy has not had a general election opponent since she took the seat in 2014, but Republican Virginia McDonald got more votes in her primary this June than Stewart-Peregoy did in hers. Both were unopposed in their primaries.
Based on past election results and conversations with Montana politicos, other interesting races include House District 96, the Missoula seat that has bounced between Republicans and Democrats every election cycle since 2014. Now, Democrat Jonathan Karlen looks to topple Republican incumbent Kathy Whitman. Another possible Democratic pickup — though more of a long-shot — is Havre’s House District 28.
Though Democrats have lost their grip on Havre in recent years, it was once a rare blue enclave on the Hi-Line. Bachmeier, before decamping to Great Falls, represented the district in 2018. It’s since been held by Republican Ed Hill, though he’ll face a tough opponent in Democrat Paul Tuss, a former Montana regent and Havre businessman who previously lost a state Senate race in the area by only 132 votes.