Election day is here, and while pundits and national observers will be mostly focused on the races for Montana’s two new U.S. House seats and the high-profile contest for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court, tonight’s results will also decide the direction of the state Legislature for the next biennium.
Whether or not the Legislature remains in Republican control is essentially a settled question. The real unknown is whether the GOP can win the two additional seats necessary for a bicameral supermajority — a two-thirds margin that will allow the party to refer initiatives and constitutional amendments to the ballot without needing a single vote from minority party Democrats.
The prospect of a supermajority, and what that could mean for issues like access to abortion, has been one of the Democratic Party’s key messages heading into November. Republicans, meanwhile, have pledged that today’s results will expand the party’s dominance in Montana following a series of major wins in 2020.
As it stands, the state House is split 67-33 and the Senate 31-19 in favor of the GOP.
Every House seat and all but 24 Senate seats are up for grabs in this election. In five Senate seats, a Republican is running without an opponent. The same can be said for 20 House seats. Democrats are running uncontested for three House seats.
That puts the baseline margins at 5-0 in the Senate and 20-3 in the House. Everything else is in play, though some districts are much more competitive than others.
To help sort through the noise, MTFP put together a list of races we’re watching most intently tonight, based on election data and a raft of interviews in recent months with lawmakers, consultants, party staffers, constituents and more. Democrats have a handful of pick-up opportunities, though most of the focus this year is on seats that Republicans are eyeing to boost their margins. It’s not an exhaustive list, and it doesn’t offer predictions either way, but it does provide a roadmap for some of the big storylines we’ll be following into the new year.
For a guide to the genesis of the current legislative map and how the districts have performed in past elections, check out MTFP’s recent piece on legislative competitiveness. You can see how Montanans voted precinct-by-precinct in 2020 here.
SENATE DISTRICT 49
This race, as one Democratic staffer put it in a September MTFP story on the district, is the “big one.”
Spanning from west Missoula all the way out to Alberton, Senate District 49 contains reliable Republican and Democratic voters in roughly equal proportion. The race pits against one another the Missoula lawmakers who currently represent the seat’s two component House districts, Republican Rep. Brad Tschida and Democratic Rep. Willis Curdy. Democratic President Joe Biden carried the district by four points in 2020, but former President Donald Trump carried it by five points in 2016.
The seat was long held by term-limited Democratic Sen. Diane Sands, who successfully fended off Republican challengers in a series of close races in 2014 and 2018. (Her initial victory over former lawmaker Dick Haines was by just 31 votes).
As politically engaged Montanans try to parse the debates swirling around the proposed legislative maps, one way to make sense of the various indices, criteria and metrics under discussion is to look at how they apply to the current map.
This all makes it one of the most competitive — and closely watched — legislative races this cycle.
Tschida is a Republican hardliner who spearheaded efforts to audit Missoula County election systems, while Curdy is a relative moderate in the Democratic caucus. As SD 49 was previously held by Democrats, a Tschida victory would constitute a major pick-up for Republicans in their quest for a supermajority.
In 10 major statewide races since 2016, Democrats have carried the district seven times, according to MTFP analysis.
SENATE DISTRICT 32
Another high-profile pick-up opportunity for the GOP lies in Senate District 32, a vertical strip that stretches from Bozeman to West Yellowstone.
The district’s incumbent, Democratic Sen. Pat Flowers, unseated Republican Jedediah Hinkle in 2018 by about four points. But four years before that, Hinkle took the seat by 12 points, so there’s clearly some Republican energy in the district. Trump, meanwhile, carried the district by two points in 2016, but lost it by 6 points in 2020.
Flowers faces a challenge from Republican Randy Chamberlin, a Gallatin Valley businessman who previously ran in the 2020 primary for House District 64, losing to now-Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, by just 33 votes.
The results in the district will provide an interesting window into the voting behavior of the mass of new residents in Gallatin County, one of the state’s fastest-growing areas.
In 10 major statewide races since 2016, Democrats have carried the district eight times, according to an MTFP analysis.
HOUSE DISTRICT 96
Few districts are as dependably undependable as northwest Missoula’s House District 96.
The Missoula district has flipped between Democratic and Republican control every election since 2014, most recently with the victory of Republican Kathy Whitman over Democrat Loni Conley by less than 3 points in 2020.
In 2018, Democrat Tom Winter unseated Republican Adam Hertz by less than a point, only to vacate the seat to mount a failed bid for U.S. House. And two years before that, Hertz beat Democrat Andrew Person, who two years prior had beaten Republican Lyn Hellegaard.
Now, University of Montana wildlife conservation researcher Jonathan Karlen is vying to unseat Whitman. If the district’s see-saw trend continues, HD 96 will help buttress Democratic margins in the House.
In 10 major statewide races since 2016, Democrats have carried the district six times, according to an MTFP analysis.
BASICALLY ALL OF GREAT FALLS
In the narrative history of the 2020 election in Montana, Great Falls is deserving of at least a couple of chapters. That year, the red wave washed over Cascade County, and Democrats, who once held a sizable share of Great Falls-area legislative districts, were routed. Sen. Carlie Boland and SD 11 Sen Tom Jacobson are the only Democrats who still hold seats in Great Falls, and Boland’s Senate District 12 seat wasn’t on the ballot in 2020. Boland did not file for re-election in 2022.
Boland’s and Jacobson’s seats are the only Democratic districts in Great Falls that Republicans can still flip. The SD 12 race sees former Democratic lawmaker Jacob Bachmeier, who previously represented Havre, running against Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm. Jacobson is running for re-election in SD 11 against Republican Daniel Emrish.
But the bigger question for Democrats, whose party in Montana relies on support in the state’s scattered urban areas, is whether they can claw back some territory in Great Falls. Several races will provide answers this week.
High on the list is former House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner’s bid against GOP Rep. Jeremy Trebas in Senate District 13, a seat currently held by term-limited Republican Brian Hoven. Schreiner, as a former party leader, has plum connections and a sophisticated fundraising apparatus, but is still running in a district that Republicans in statewide races carried seven of 10 times since 2016. Trump won the district both times he ran, but by declining margins: 13 points in 2016 and 8 points in 2020. A flip in SD 13 would be an encouraging indicator for Democrats, both in Great Falls and statewide.
On the House side, former Democratic Reps. Jasmine Krotkov and Barbara Bessette are looking to beat the Republicans who ousted them in House districts 25 and 24 two years ago: Reps. Steve Gist and Steven Galloway, respectively. In both cases, statewide Republicans won the districts in 7 of 10 races since 2016, but House District 24 was represented by Democrats for three successive terms before Galloway’s victory in 2020. Elsewhere in the city, there are contested races for House Districts 20, 21, 22, 23 and 26, all of which, excepting HD 20, have sent both Democrats and Republicans to the Legislature since 2014.
HOUSE DISTRICT 77 AND SENATE DISTRICT 39
A pair of seats in southwestern Montana are both worth watching.
Democrats have held House District 77 for years thanks to the party’s continued foothold in union-dense Anaconda, but a strong year for Republicans could change that. Statewide GOP candidates have carried the district six of 10 times since 2016, including two wins for Trump, according to MTFP’S analysis.
Incumbent Rep. Sara Novak won the seat by 6 points in 2020, the lowest margin of victory for a Democrat in the district’s existence. This year, she faces a formidable opponent in the form of John Fitzpatrick, an influential longtime lobbyist for NorthWestern Energy who retired in 2016. Fitzpatrick’s son, Steve, represents Great Falls in the state Senate.
In the upper chamber, the unexpected death of Sen. Mark Sweeney, D-Philipsburg, in May vacated Senate District 39, which includes, aside from Philipsburg, Anaconda, Deer Lodge and Warm Springs. Sweeney won the district by just two points in 2018, and Republicans have notched six of 10 major statewide wins in the district since 2016.
Democrat Jessica Wicks was appointed to finish Sweeney’s term, but isn’t running to keep the seat. Instead, newspaper publisher Jesse Mullen is running on the Democratic ticket against Republican Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Commissioner Terry Vermeire. The race will provide an interesting test case of Democrats’ ability to win races in rural Montana as well as how the uncertain future of the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs (and the associated jobs) impacts voting behavior in the district.
HOUSE DISTRICT 28
This Havre seat is a long-shot pick-up for Democrats based on the increasing conservatism of the crown jewel of the Hi-Line in recent statewide elections, but it’s a district Democrats have won before.
Democrat Jacob Bachmeier, who’s now running in Great Falls, held the seat for two terms before vacating in 2020, a year that saw Republican Ed Hill defeat Krystal Steinmetz by about 3 points. In this election, Democrat Paul Tuss, a former Montana university regent and Havre businessman who previously lost a state Senate race in the area by only 132 votes, is vying to knock out Hill. It’ll be an uphill battle: Republicans have carried the district in major statewide races eight of 10 times since 2016, according to MTFP’s analysis.
HOUSE DISTRICT 41
There are several contested races in Montana’s majority-Native American districts this year, but this one could prove the tightest for Democrats.
On paper, the Lame Deer-Busby-Colstrip district leans Republican, but Democrats have held the seat in a series of unopposed elections since 2014, most recently with the victory of Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena in 2020.
That means there’s never been a true test of the district’s competitiveness in the Legislature, even though the district has gone to Republicans in eight of 10 major statewide races since 2016. This year, Republican Paul Green is on the ballot against Whiteman Pena. Neither candidate had an opponent in the primary; Green managed 698 votes to Whiteman Pena’s 298.
Turnout among the district’s Native American residents, who historically tend to support Democrats, is a key challenge for the party. Traditionally, absentee registration rates are low on reservations compared to the rest of the state, and low in-person turnout — whether due to weather, disillusionment or poor outreach — could push this district to the GOP.
This story was updated Nov. 8, 2022, to include SD 11 incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobson’s race against Republican challenger Daniel Emrich.
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