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Well, it happened.
As Democrats feared and Republicans hoped, the Montana GOP emerged from Tuesday’s midterm election guaranteed to have a “supermajority” in the upcoming 2023 Legislature.
House District 15 is likely headed to a recount, but regardless of the outcome of that race, Republicans will maintain more than the 100 seats necessary to control two-thirds of the 150-member bicameral Legislature.
That means Republicans, at least in theory, could override the governor’s veto, send proposed constitutional amendments to voters in 2024, or ask voters to call for a new constitutional convention to rewrite the state’s 50-year-old version, all without the support of a single Democrat.
That is, of course, entirely dependent on whether the 103 or so Republicans — about 30 of whom will be “true” freshmen, having not previously served in either body — can stick together on such bold moves.
If past sessions are any indicator, that’ll be a pretty tall order.
For the better part of the last decade, intraparty squabbling and ideological division between the hard-right faction of the Republican legislative caucus and the self-ordained Conservative Solutions Caucus has thwarted any notion of lockstep caucus unity.
Hard-fought battles over House and Senate leadership, biennial fights over the rules that govern the legislative process, and public accusations of party disloyalty have been hallmarks of the majority in recent years.
And despite proclamations from Republican leaders that voters sent a clear message this election, that doesn’t mean individual lawmakers are getting the same memo.
As longtime Conrad lawmaker and de facto Conservative Solutions Caucus leader Llew Jones put it: “I will vote with the caucus when I can, but not when it’s against my conscience and my constituents.”
Anyone who has been paying attention to the Legislature for the past 16 years or so has heard Jones and other veteran legislators utter some version of that mantra over and over again. Don’t expect a supermajority to change that attitude.
For their part, Democrats are going to have a different role to play in this session. Knowing they don’t have the numbers to block constitutional amendments or a Republican call for a constitutional convention without some GOP help, look for the minority party to put significant effort into calling out what they see as the excesses of the Republican majority.
“Our primary role is to shine a light on where this administration and these majorities are failing
Montana communities in terms of how they govern and the policies they are promoting,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, told me Thursday. “We have alternative solutions that will deliver for those communities, and we have to offer those, too.”
Jones and Abbott talked about the impending session during a Mansfield Center-sponsored event titled “Can Civility Prevail in the Montana Legislature?” Wednesday night. Asked about the majority’s role in fostering a “civil environment” at the Legislature, Jones said, “I believe the majority must not behave like a bully.”
What does that look like?
“The majority votes their priorities, but we have to respect the right that the minority has to speak,” Jones said. “The majority votes, and the minority talks and influences outcomes because they don’t have the ability to make significant votes.”
Protecting those minority rights, Jones said, is part of the majority’s responsibility.
—John Adams, Editor-in-Chief
Editor’s note: The version of this analysis that appeared in the Nov. 11 Lowdown newsletter incorrectly stated that the GOP supermajority in the 2023 legislative session could allow a united Republican caucus “to call for a new constitutional convention.” In fact, the GOP supermajority could put the question of a new constitutional convention before voters via legislative initiative on the 2024 ballot. This version of the analysis has updated language to correct the error.
By the Numbers 🔢
Registered Montana voters who cast ballots in the 2022 general election, according to unofficial results posted by the secretary of state’s office Thursday. The total, which is subject to change pending provisional ballot counting, county canvassing and a state audit, represents a statewide voter turnout rate of 60.22%.
Montana’s last midterm election, in 2018, posted a statewide turnout rate of 71.53%. But drawing comparisons from one election to another isn’t an exact science. This year’s top-ticket races were a pair of congressional seats in eastern and western Montana, while in 2018 the top of the ballot featured a high-profile re-election fight by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Turnout in the 2014 midterm was 55.44% — a year that saw two fierce contests for the Montana Supreme Court, but also included a showdown between Democrat Amanda Curtis and Republican Steve Daines for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat. And if you go back even further to Montana’s most recent midterm with two U.S. House races, in 1990, statewide voter turnout was 74.9%. That election also featured a Senate re-election campaign by Democrat Max Baucus.
In the 32 years since, you can imagine that the figures used to calculate turnout have changed significantly too. The number of registered voters in Montana during the 1990 general election was 435,900, of whom 326,652 cast a ballot that year. This time around, the 459,441 ballots cast came from a pool of 762,933 registered voters.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Crystal Ball 🔮
Anticipation was reaching critical mass in Montana in the days ahead of Tuesday’s general election. Campaigns were working tirelessly on their 11th-hour pitches, outside groups were dropping oodles of cash on messaging in top-ticket races, and voters across the state were eager for answers to some of the biggest questions on the ballot. Who will Montana elect to its new U.S. House seats? Will the state Supreme Court see a shake-up? Will the electorate accept or reject the much-debated Born-Alive Infant Protection Act?
But before the polls even opened Nov. 8, public school students in Montana had offered a forecast of what was in store. Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 4, the Office of Public Instruction administered its annual Youth Vote event, asking K-12 students to vote in a mock election featuring the highest-profile items on the 2022 ticket. Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen jointly announced the results Nov. 7.
So how did they stack up against Tuesday’s unofficial statewide returns?
Montana’s Youth Vote in the western district’s congressional race was almost dead-on: 49.28% for Republican Ryan Zinke, compared to Zinke’s 49.7% statewide showing on Election Day. But from there, students forged a path all their own. Zinke’s Democratic opponent, Monica Tranel, netted just 28% of the K-12 vote, roughly half what she got in the actual election. Eastern district incumbent Matt Rosendale came up seven points shorter in the student vote than he did at the polls. And on the Supreme Court side, challengers James Brown and Bill D’Alton carried the vote among students grade 7 to 12 by double-digit margins. In reality, both lost their races Tuesday, with incumbents Ingrid Gustafson and Jim Rice posting 54% and 78% victories, respectively.
The joint OPI/SOS endeavor also asked middle and high school students to cast their votes on Montana’s two 2022 ballot issues. A constitutional amendment protecting electronic data from unreasonable search and seizure passed the Youth Vote with 73% — roughly nine points shy of its actual success rate Nov. 8. But students and statewide voters went opposite directions on the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. On Tuesday, 53% of voters rejected the referendum. The week prior, 62% of students participating in the Youth Vote event cast votes supporting it
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The Viz 📈
The total vote count is what matters most to candidates on election night — but the path toward getting the winning number always flows through the realities of Montana’s political geography. Such was the case for Montana’s two U.S. House contests this week.
Western Montana voters split along familiar lines this year, backing Democrat Monica Tranel by large margins in Missoula, Bozeman and Butte. That support wasn’t enough, though, to overcome Republican Ryan Zinke’s support in the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys, as well as in other rural counties.
Montana’s highly Republican-favored eastern district went hard for incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale. With Democrat Penny Ronning and independent challenger Gary Buchanan both competing for votes against Rosendale, the Republican won every single district, picking up particularly large margins in Great Falls and Billings.
Curious about numbers for other counties? We have a story with interactive versions of these maps here.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
“Our judicial elections are non-partisan for a reason, to ensure that an independent, fair
judiciary serves the people of Montana regardless of their circumstances, not a political
party or any one agenda of an interest group. With their support for my re-election,
Montana voters from all walks of life, professions and regions clearly rejected the
partisan nature of my opponent and the efforts of out-of-state lobbying organizations
and extreme partisan politicians to purchase a seat on the Montana Supreme Court.”Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson, who retained her seat this week in the race against attorney James Brown, in a Wednesday statement celebrating her victory. Brown, the Republican Party favorite, congratulated Gustafson on her win while partly attributing his 8-point loss to third-party spending supporting his opponent. Together, Brown and Gustafson’s race generated more than $3 million in independent expenditures by state-level and national political groups, a record-breaking figure for Montana Supreme Court races.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — This week I enjoyed taking a spin through the more than 1,000 bill drafts that have been submitted to legislative support staff ahead of the 2023 legislative session. I’m anticipating there will be plenty of wildlife management, environmental permitting and energy-related measures to keep me busy come January.
Alex — About the last thing I felt like talking about in my free time this week was the election. Unfortunately, journalistic instinct is pretty much impossible to shake. But a friend did, for a fleeting moment, prod me down a compelling and entirely not-election-related rabbit hole involving the U.S. Supreme Court and pigs.
Arren — In case you’ve forgotten: Kalispell’s ImagineIF library, which became embroiled in a censorship controversy last year thanks in part to a right-wing takeover of the library board of trustees, is still in a state of disarray, per the Flathead Beacon. Four library leaders have resigned in the last 18 months, most recently assistant director Sean Anderson, who announced his intention this week.
Eric — It’s been a hell of a week. All I have for you folks is this.
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