Montana Democrats, like their counterparts nationwide, went into election night last week preparing for the worst. 

It was a midterm cycle with a Democrat in the White House, traditionally an environment that yields a strong showing for Republicans down ballot (and vice versa, when roles are reversed). The GOP was looking to not only solidify recent gains in places like Cascade County but also to make inroads in Helena and the majority-Native American districts where Democrats have historically enjoyed safe harbor. In addition to the handful of open seats up for grabs, Democrats had to defend several districts carried by Republican President Donald Trump — all without a U.S. Senate or presidential race to drive voter turnout.

In 2020, Republicans drubbed Democrats in Montana, winning every statewide office and running up their already solid majority in the Legislature. This year had the makings of a repeat performance, and with the unfriendly midterm environment, more. The Democratic Party fretted over anemic early returns from mail-in ballots. And the forecast called for Election Day to be bitterly cold enough to discourage stragglers to the polls. Forget the possible Republican supermajority that Democrats had been campaigning against — holding enough seats to maintain a shred relevance in the policymaking process now seemed the goal. 

By those ever-diminishing standards, the Montana Democratic Party finished election week feeling pleasantly surprised. 

“It’s disappointing that we fell short in some seats, but I think considering that we are running in a Republican midterm environment on a map that we know is heavily skewed toward the Republican Party, I think we over-performed expectations and came out OK,” said Scott McNeil, who heads the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which supports the party’s state legislative candidates. 

Fending off a GOP supermajority was always going to be a challenge in this environment, McNeil said, akin to “an uphill battle in the snow wearing ice skates.” 

“We had to defend six Trump-held seats, including two he had won by double digits two years earlier,” he said. “We didn’t have any Biden-held seats that we could play for.”

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THE RESULTS

To dispatch the top-ticket item: With 102 seats across both the House and Senate, the Montana GOP will have its first bicameral supermajority in the history of the state’s modern Constitution. 

The party needed a net gain of only two seats to achieve the supermajority and it succeeded, picking up six districts across the state and losing two to Democrats. Republicans will hold 68 seats in the House and 34 in the Senate during the 2023 session. As of Tuesday morning, the final outstanding legislative race — Democratic Rep. Mavin Weatherwax’s contest against Republican challenger Ralph Foster in House District 15, which includes Glacier, Lake and Pondera counties — had been decided in favor of the incumbent. Democrats also held two contested Senate seats in Missoula and Bozeman, fended off all challengers in Helena, retained all but one member of its Native American caucus and won back House seats in Missoula and Havre.

The two-thirds supermajority will give Republicans the margins across the Legislature necessary to refer constitutional amendments to the ballot without support from minority party Democrats, though whether Republicans will actually vote in unison is a separate and open question. 

“I think we had a good night,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who chairs the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. “People gotta remember that in 2020 we picked up 10 seats, now we picked up about another 5. It’s kind of about how far can we go?”

As results came in, Democrats were quick to point the finger at the legislative map. The 2022 election was the last to use districts that first appeared on the ballot in 2014. Since then, the state’s demographics have shifted, with more and more people settling in urban areas that tend to favor Democrats. 

“You’ve heard Democrats say a lot that these districts that we’re running in haven’t been durable,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said at a forum hosted by the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center last week. “They’re old, and they’re broken. Democrats are about 44% of the two-party vote share, and it seems like the ceiling in the House is about 33 seats. That’s not fair representation for Democrats.”

“I think we had a good night. People gotta remember that in 2020 we picked up 10 seats, now we picked up about another 5. It’s kind of about how far can we go?”

State Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson

In House districts with at least two general election candidates, Republicans won 53% of the vote in aggregate, good enough for 60% of those seats, according to a Montana Free Press analysis. In the equivalent Senate districts, Republicans took 52% of the vote, enough for 55% of those contested seats. The current legislative maps have generally conferred a slightly disproportionate majority to Republicans. 

Across the board, the complexion of the Legislature is coming into alignment with statewide and national election results in Montana, which has long supported Republican presidential candidates and sent a Republican to the governor’s office in 2020, said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena. 

“There’s a lag effect that we see nationwide,” he said. “Local offices, they hold on longer, but they can’t hold on forever.”

GREAT FALLS

The path to Republican dominance this cycle again went through Great Falls, a city that historically sent a mix of both parties to the Legislature but has since moved to the right. In 2020, the GOP won every legislative race in the city, leaving two out-of-cycle Senate seats held by Democrats. This year, Republicans again cleaned up in the House and seized those two Senate seats, ousting Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobson in Senate District 11 and winning an open race in the district formerly held by Democratic Sen. Carlie Boland, who did not run for re-election this year. 

In that latter race, for south Great Falls’ Senate District 12, current Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, defeated former Democratic Rep. Jacob Bachmeier. SD12 has twice before sent Democrats to the state Senate, but has supported Republican statewide candidates in seven of 10 major races since 2016. 

McKamey said the voters she talked to were concerned about election integrity and the economy, especially the cost of living. 

“Working-class places are trending away from Democrats, and I think we as Democrats in Montana and also nationwide need to have a conversation about how we can appeal to these voters better.”

Scott McNeil, Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee

“The people in my district are extremely hard-working individuals, some are on fixed incomes, and they’re worried about their retirements evaporating into thin air,” McKamey said. 

Exactly what has gone wrong for Democrats in Cascade County is the subject of continued soul-searching by the party. In 2018, Democrats held six House and Senate seats in Great Falls. Now they hold none. 

“I think right now, we just got some numbers, we’re still digesting things, and I’m sure as we move forward we’re going to have conversations with folks in Cascade County and statewide on what we can do differently and better going forward,” McNeil said. “Those are tough districts, and what we’re seeing in Cascade County is not really different from what we’re seeing in other parts of the country. Working-class places are trending away from Democrats, and I think we as Democrats in Montana and also nationwide need to have a conversation about how we can appeal to these voters better.”

For her part, McKamey, who won her race by 12 points, said she isn’t sure there’s a unified theory of recent GOP success in the area. 

“That’s up for conjecture really, and that’s really all it is,” she said. “We can try to guess, but it will be nothing more than a guess as to why. People expect results, and I think they want people who will seek solutions and get results. And I think for the most part they have found those solutions and results to be more satisfactory in the Republican Party.”

Ron Szabo, the chair of the Cascade County Democratic Party, said too many voters are following party labels, not choosing candidates based on quality, character and experience. Union density, as with the rest of the state, has declined in Great Falls, he said. In other words, the political context of the working class has changed.

Republicans, he said, have also managed to run on shrinking government without having to explain what happens to government services when that happens.

“The real disconnect seems to be that some of the Republicans have succeeded in separating the income of taxes from the service of government,” he said.

“To continue to be disappointed that the state [Democratic] party isn’t helping enough or they have other priorities is a little bit self-defeating.”

Democrat Melissa Smith, who lost her race to incumbent GOP Rep. Scot Kerns in House District 23.

There’s also a question of strategy and allocation. A competitive congressional race in Montana’s 1st Congressional District as well as high-profile state Senate races drew Democratic resources and attention westward, Cascade County Democrats say. 

“We didn’t get [support from the state party],” said Melissa Smith, who lost her race to incumbent GOP Rep. Scot Kerns in House District 23. Smith also serves as secretary of the county party. “We were sort of promised it, and then the focus shifted — it’s always about allocation of resources. We don’t have as many resources as the Republican Party, and that’s just the bottom line. What pretty much we’ve really learned is that we can marshal our resources here. To continue to be disappointed that the state party isn’t helping enough or they have other priorities is a little bit self-defeating.”

Still, Szabo said, he’s convinced Democrats still have a future in Cascade County. Not every race was a blowout, he noted.

“We put out quality people, we ran hard, and you know, we’re going to do it again,” he said. “This fever is going to break, I’m convinced, I just don’t know when.”

OTHER RACES

Republicans also notched wins in two southwestern Montana districts, House District 77 and Senate District 39, both of which were previously held by Democrats. And they picked up House District 48 in Billings, a seat formerly held by Democratic Rep. Jessica Karjala. 

But one of Tuesday’s biggest upsets was in House District 41, a majority-Native American seat in southeastern Montana. 

Democrats have represented the area for more than a decade, and Republicans generally haven’t bothered to field a candidate. That changed this year. House District 41 was also ripe for a Republican pick-up. As a whole it leans Republican, and has supported eight of 10 major statewide GOP candidates since 2016. 

“What drove me to run is I don’t believe anybody should run unopposed,” said Paul Green, a Hardin businessman and Republican who defeated incumbent Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena, a Democrat and former president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, by 14 points.

Green said he campaigned largely on economic development and retaining the region’s energy sector. 

“Everybody can say they’re for jobs, but I think I have a real plan, and for me it was to save our power plants and our coal mines, and the way I believe we do that is we replicate what Texas has, and that’s our own statewide grid system,” he said. 

Whiteman Pena won in both Big Horn and Rosebud counties, which overlap with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, but Green ran up the score in the district’s overwhelmingly white Powder River County, which he carried by 77 points. 

Despite the lopsided results, Green said he campaigned both on and off the reservation. 

“On the reservation, people are pro-life, they’re anti-illegal immigration, they’re for lower crime. It was easy for me to reach out and talk to them,” he said.

Whiteman Pena could not be reached for comment for this story.

Across the board, turnout on Native American reservations was not what Democrats had hoped for, McNeil, of the MDLCC, said. 

There was a lot of confusion on tribal reservations about what was needed for voting and when people could vote,” he said. “There were several voters who were confused.”

That said, Democrats easily defended neighboring House District 42, another majority-Native district that saw its first Republican candidate in years. And Democrats eked out a win in Weatherwax’s House District 15, also a reservation district.

A big defensive win came in Missoula’s Senate District 49, where current Democratic Rep. Willis Curdy defeated Republican Rep. Brad Tschida for the open seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Diane Sands. The same can be said for Bozeman’s Senate District 32, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Pat Flowers defeated Republican challenger Randy Chamberlin. 

And voters continued a flip-flopping trend in Missoula’s House District 96, a seat that has gone back and forth between the parties every two years since 2014. There, Democrat Jonathan Karlen unseated Rep. Kathy Whitman, a Republican. 

“The government doesn’t need to know how many rifles I have in my gun safe and they also don’t need to be telling my daughter how to make her health care decisions.”

Incoming House District 28 Rep. Paul Tuss, Democrat

The biggest surprise victory for Democrats came in Havre’s House District 28, where former university regent and Democrat Paul Tuss defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Ed Hill. Havre was once a reliable Democratic enclave in an otherwise deep-red Hi-Line, but has since crept toward the right. 

“I have worked in economic development in rural northern Montana, and the issues that I’ve worked on for that period of time are the same issues that I accentuated in my campaign,” Tuss said. “Meat-and-potato issues that people care about every day: quality public schools, solid infrastructure, jobs and the economy, helping small businesses.”

Rural America does well when Democrats are in office, Tuss said — they just have to win, which his race proved is possible.

“The truth is that we need to do a far better job of messaging the issues that are important to us as a party and candidates and how those issues relate to the residents of rural and frontier communities,” he said.

In Havre, that meant campaigning for a government that can support infrastructure, the economy and schools while also staying out of people’s way, he said. 

“The government doesn’t need to know how many rifles I have in my gun safe and they also don’t need to be telling my daughter how to make her health care decisions,” he said.

THE FUTURE

Exactly what the Republican supermajority will mean for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, is hard to say. Democrats campaigned hard against the prospect, arguing that Republicans would use the power to push through ballot proposals to strip the privacy protections in the state Constitution that shield access to abortion in Montana, or even call a constitutional convention.

But as they’ve grown their majority in the Legislature, Montana Republicans have proven to be a divided bunch, with a loose coalition of relative moderates often stymieing the caucus’ right wing. 

“I wasn’t really focused on getting a supermajority,” Hertz said. “It’s always nice to have more Republicans, but getting constitutional amendments on the ballot is hard, even with supermajorities.”

He said he’s not expecting this session to look all that different from the last several under Republican control. The GOP sent two issues to the ballot this cycle, and the one that glancingly dealt with abortion, LR-131, went down by six points. 

“I’m not so sure that [abortion] will arise to the level of a constitutional amendment,” Hertz said. 

“We still have an Armstrong case to deal with,” he added, referencing the 1999 state Supreme Court decision that enshrined abortion protections within the state Constitution’s right to privacy. 

“Just by having a supermajority doesn’t mean you’re going to get a supermajority vote on all issues.”

State Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad

The majority is full of independent members who are ultimately responsible to their constituents, not to the party agenda, said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, at the Mansfield Center forum last week. Jones is the de-facto leader of the so-called Solutions Caucus, the aforementioned group of moderates. 

“Just by having a supermajority doesn’t mean you’re going to get a supermajority vote on all issues,” Jones said. “When I look at this supermajority, and in particular look at your seniors that may be done, they’re not worried about running for re-election, there’s going to be certainly issues they’re not going to be willing to put on the ballot.

“If you just randomly pick stuff out of a hat and assume you’re gonna make major changes — whether it’s to privacy or a ton of other items, especially sweeping change — one, I’m not sure it passes the Legislature, and two, even if it does pass the Legislature, I’m not sure it’s gonna do much other than lose,” he added.

Eric Dietrich contributed reporting.

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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.