This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
A couple of years back, longtime Montana reporter Chuck Johnson, whom we lost last week at age 74, sent me a spreadsheet he’d compiled detailing which political party had controlled the Montana House, Senate and governorship year-by-year over the course of the state’s history. Chuck being Chuck, it included figures stretching back nearly to statehood in 1889, painstakingly tallied and color-coded.
Colleagues remember veteran Montana political journalist Chuck Johnson
Chuck Johnson worked 43 years as a full-time reporter, working at or leading the Helena bureaus for Lee Newspapers and the Great Falls Tribune for most of that time. He retired in 2015 after Lee closed its bureau and laid him off, but returned to the Capitol in 2017 to cover the Legislature for the…
I played around some with sketching out different ways to visualize his data, but didn’t manage to get the project across the finish line in time for him to see it published. I dusted things off this week, adding data for this year’s legislative session.
While Republicans have had firm control of both chambers of the Montana Legislature for more than a decade, that hasn’t always been the case over Montana’s long history. Democrats controlled the Montana Senate and split the House with Republicans as recently as the 2005 Legislature, the first session with Democrat Brian Schweitzer in office as governor.
Democrats who are inclined to bemoan their party’s current political fortunes could take solace in the fact that the Legislature isn’t as Republican-dominated as it was in the 1920s. The 1921 House, for example, included 98 Republicans in its 108 seats. (The Legislature wasn’t set at its current size of 100 representatives and 50 senators until the passage of the state’s modern Constitution in 1972.)
Similarly, Republicans who expect their current dominance to remain a permanent fixture of Montana politics could also take a look at the history. By the mid-1930s, Democrats had surged back into power, controlling 81 of 102 seats in the 1937 House.
Correction: As a result of a production error, a prior version of the graphic in this story mistakenly labeled former Republican governors Stan Stephens, Marc Racicot and Judy Martz as a Democrats. The graphic was updated March 16, 2023. MTFP regrets the mistake.
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