U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, addresses a joint session of the Montana Legislature on Feb. 20. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Lawmakers this week tabled a pair of bills that would make it harder for third-party and independent candidates to land on the ballot ahead of Montana’s 2024 U.S. Senate race. 

The House State Administration Committee voted to table Senate Bill 566 on a nearly unanimous voice vote Wednesday. Two days earlier, the same committee — though with less agreement — tabled Senate Bill 565

Critics saw the bills, both sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, as attempts to consolidate support behind Republicans as they marshal resources to challenge U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s only remaining statewide elected Democrat and a key piece in the fight for partisan control of the Senate. 

“I have had a lot of my folks from back home reach out to me and ask me to vote ‘no’ on this,” Rep. Gregory Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, said of SB 566 in committee Wednesday before making a motion to table the bill. “A lot more than I thought. And with all due respect to the sponsor, because I know that he’s worked very hard, but as the conduit of my constituents, I’m their voice. I’m going to oppose this bill.”

Tester announced his reelection bid in February, ending speculation that he might abdicate the seat. A Republican has yet to formally declare their intent to run, but the party has several potential candidates in the state. Moreover, Montana’s other U.S. senator, Steve Daines, chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP organization that helps elect Republicans to the U.S. Senate.

Senate Bill 566 was particularly controversial, generating national headlines and outcry from the Montana Libertarian Party, the only third party in the state to consistently make the ballot. The bill would change how U.S. Senate primaries are run in the state, replacing partisan primaries with a top-two contest in which the two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election, regardless of party. But the bill would sunset in 2025, meaning that it would only apply to the closely watched race for Tester’s Senate seat. 

Such a shift would unlikely hurt Tester’s chances of advancing from the primary. But it would almost certainly prevent a Libertarian or other third-party candidate from making it to the general election. In theory, that would then allow a Republican challenger to Tester to consolidate support, as Libertarians are generally seen as more closely aligned with the GOP than Democrats. Tester has won several close races with a Libertarian on the ballot. 

While the assumption that eliminating a Libertarian candidate from the general election would necessarily help Republicans has some mathematical and social-scientific flaws, critics pounced on the bill as an attempt by the national GOP to rejigger Montana’s elections with a single outcome in mind. 

“The bill primarily affects third parties that already have ballot access,” Sid Daoud, a Kalispell city council member who chairs the Montana Libertarian Party, said in opposition to the bill during a Senate hearing earlier this month. “In an effort to knock Sen. Tester out of the next Senate race, Sen. Hertz is attempting to remove the potential Montana Libertarian Party candidate from taking a percentage in what is expected to be an extremely tight race.”

Hertz repeatedly defended his bill as an experiment in democracy that would ensure that the eventual winner of the Senate race would have majority — rather than plurality — support from Montana voters. 

“It always bothers me that sometimes our statewide elected officials don’t end up with the majority vote,” he said earlier this month. 

An earlier version of the bill applied the top-two primary system to other statewide races. But on March 26, lobbyist and former Montana GOP Executive Director Chuck Denowh — who has worked for previous campaigns of both Daines and U.S. House Rep. Matt Rosendale, a likely challenger to Tester — wrote Hertz and legislative drafters to request that the bill be modified to apply only to the U.S. Senate race and sunset in 2025. Hertz approved of the changes. 

And when the New York Times got ahold of the story, it reported a text exchange between Republican lawmakers and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, in which Fitzpatrick said the bill came from Daines and Jason Thielman, Daines’ former chief of staff who now serves as executive director of the NRSC. Fitzpatrick later acknowledged to the Times that he believed the bill came from national Republicans. 

Senate Bill 565 attracted less attention but had a similar purpose, proposing to increase the number of petition signatures required for third-parties to hold primaries. 

“In my short political career of about 15 years here, what I’ve noticed is both major parties are weaponizing our third-party candidates,” Hertz said on the Senate floor this month in support of his bill, pointing to instances in which Democrats propped up Libertarians and Republicans backed Green Party candidates. 

Critics of the bill seized on its partisan implications and the fact that — as with Senate Bill 566 – it was gaining steam relatively late in the session. 

“These are huge changes to our elections, and if we’re gonna make such a big change, we shouldn’t make it at the last minute,” Bozeman Rep. Kelly Kortum, the ranking Democrat on the House State Administration Committee, said this week. 

Both bills could conceivably be revived in committee. The House State Administration Committees set to meet again on Friday. 

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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.