Two voters fill out their ballots at the Senior Citizens Center in Arlee on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

Renewed efforts to restrict the ability of third-party and independent candidates to make the ballot ahead of Montana’s 2024 U.S. Senate race stalled just as they began Monday with little explanation. 

The proposals — which critics have labeled as legislative end-runs to hinder Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s re-election bid — may not necessarily be dead. But their failure to re-launch Monday indicates a limited appetite among legislative Republicans to keep pushing the issue. 

Monday morning, the Senate State Administration committee met for the sole purpose of debating a strike-everything amendment to Missoula GOP Rep. Mike HopkinsHouse Bill 774 that would replace the bill’s core content with language providing for top-two primaries in Montana’s U.S. House and Senate races. In top-two primaries, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election regardless of party. 

HB 774 had previously been tabled in the committee, meaning the committee had to vote to take it off the table to add the amendment. But several Republicans joined with all committee Democrats in voting down that motion, and the committee adjourned immediately after. Hopkins’ bill as initially written would combine all local, state, federal and special district elections on the same ballot in even-numbered years.

“I like the concept, I like the idea, it’s just too much at the 11th hour,” said Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, one of the Republicans who voted against reviving HB 774 — and thus, effectively against adding the new language. There are about 10 days left in Montana’s 68th Legislature. 

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, borrowed substantially from Senate Bill 566, legislation sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, that proposes replacing partisan primaries with a top-two system only for the state’s upcoming U.S. Senate race. Jon Tester, whom political observers regard as one of the U.S. Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats and the only member of his party to hold statewide office in Montana, launched his 2024 reelection bid in February. 

Such a change would largely make it harder for Libertarian Party candidates to advance to a general election, something that would in theory help Republicans, though there are problems with that assumption. Tester has repeatedly won close races with a Libertarian on the ballot. 

Hertz presented his bill as a trial run for a new democratic process that would guarantee that the winner of a U.S. Senate race does so with a majority vote. But the bill’s narrow scope and late-session movement made it immediately controversial, as did subsequent reporting that the proposal came from the National Republican Senatorial Committee — a GOP campaign organization chaired by Montana’s other U.S. senator, Steve Daines, and directed by Daines’ former chief of staff, Jason Thielman. 

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The House State Administration Committee voted to table the bill nearly unanimously last week, but Capitol rumblings indicated the idea wasn’t dead. 

Cuffe repeatedly maintained in an interview Monday that the idea to attach similar top-two primary provisions to HB 774 was his alone, though he said Hertz helped develop the amendment language. And he noted that unlike Hertz’s bill, Cuffe’s amendment expanded the top-two primary system to other federal races and beyond 2024, an attempt, he said, to address criticism of the idea. 

“Too often, more people vote against somebody, but that somebody wins. That’s where this comes from. And that is Mike Cuffe talking,” he said. 

Similar late-session maneuvering occurred Monday in the House State Administration committee, which met to revive another tabled Hertz proposal, Senate Bill 565. The bill proposes to increase the number of petition signatures required for third-party and independent candidates to make the ballot, but was tabled in the committee last week. 

Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, moved to reconsider that action and bring the bill off the table for debate. Her motion was successful, and the committee recessed so lawmakers could discuss next steps in private caucus meetings. 

When the committee reconvened around 15 minutes later, Dooling successfully moved to put the bill back on the table with little explanation of what had changed. 

In theory, lawmakers could still vote to bring either of Hertz’s bills off the table, or to insert their core concepts into other legislation. As the legislative maxim goes: Nothing is dead until sine die

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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.