Credit: J. Stephen Conn / Flickr

GREAT FALLS — Each time Democrat Jon Tester won his hard-fought U.S. Senate races in Montana, he celebrated the victory at election-night parties in this working-class city on the banks of the Missouri River.

But as Tester goes for a fourth consecutive Senate win in 2024, the city that’s been his political backyard (Tester lives and farms near Big Sandy, about an hour northeast of Great Falls) and a once-Democratic stronghold has gone Republican.

Republicans wiped out the city’s last remaining Democratic state lawmakers in the 2022 election and now control all 12 legislative seats representing Great Falls and Cascade County. The GOP also completed a takeover of the Cascade County Commission when Republican Rae Grulkowski easily ousted incumbent Commissioner Don Ryan, a well-known Democrat.

Even the longtime Cascade County clerk and recorder and chief election official, Democrat Rina Fontana Moore, lost by 36 votes last year to a little-known Republican who’s since become enmeshed in controversy about her operation of school elections this spring.

The political shift of Great Falls has Democrats worried for their political future in Montana, as they wonder how they’ll claw back some ground in the Legislature or win statewide races if this former Democratic stronghold can’t be salvaged.

“I think if we lose Cascade County, especially by the margins we’ve seen Democrats losing Cascade County lately, then we just won’t elect statewide Democrats, period,” says Ken Toole, a Democratic former state senator who lives south of Great Falls and has been trying to help local candidates in the city and county.

Tester and his camp, for their part, put on a game face when asked about the new landscape in Great Falls and Cascade County.

“Jon Tester won Cascade County in all three of his U.S. Senate campaigns because the folks there are his neighbors, and know his record of fighting for their community — from standing up for our veterans to ensuring Malmstrom [Air Force Base] has the resources it needs to keep America safe,” says his 2024 campaign manager, Shelbi Dantic.

But local Democrats acknowledge they face a difficult recovery that won’t be achieved overnight.

“I think if we lose Cascade County, especially by the margins we’ve seen Democrats losing Cascade County lately, then we just won’t elect statewide Democrats, period.”

Former Democratic state Sen. Ken Toole

“This is a 5- to 10-year problem,” Toole says. “This is not something that’s going to turn around quickly.”

In 2012, six of eight Democratic candidates running for statewide races in Montana won Cascade County, including Tester.

But Tester’s 4,000-vote margin in the county in 2012 shrank to 1,900 when he won re-election in 2018, and in 2020, all eight Republican candidates on Montana’s statewide ballot won Cascade County by substantial margins.

Great Falls Democrats concede that voters here are trending more conservative.

But they also say Democrats have been hurt by a lack of organized strategy or a consistent economic message, erratic help from the state Democratic Party, the decline of organized labor and the near-evaporation of the local newspaper, leading to voters being informed mostly by national media and nationalized partisan politics.

“In this last race, we had no debates, we had no candidate forums, we had no interviews in the newspaper for people to read, so the voting was just party-line,” says Jasmine Krotkov, a Democrat who lost her race for a Great Falls state House seat by 54 votes in 2022.

The Gannett Corp.-owned Great Falls Tribune, once considered a top daily paper in the state, has sold its building, no longer prints the paper in Great Falls, and has only a couple of reporters to cover the county of 85,000 people.

While the GOP takeover has seemed sudden, with big shifts in the past two elections, Democrats and Republicans say the change has a longer tail, beginning more than a decade ago.

Republican state Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, a Great Falls attorney and the 2023 state Senate majority leader, first ran for a state House seat in 2010, in a south Great Falls district that had been consistently held by Democrats.

“There seemed to be a lot of frustration with the Democratic Party, you could feel it when you were knocking doors,” he says.

At the time, Democrats held 10 of Cascade County’s then-13 seats in the Legislature, and most countywide offices.

Fitzpatrick says he met a number of union members, who worked or had worked for natural-resource industries like oil and gas, mining or utilities, who had been Democratic stalwarts but now saw Democrats as siding with environmental forces they say oppose their industries.

He also says many of the younger people moving into Great Falls in recent years are coming from nearby rural areas in Montana, where voters are mostly Republican.

“[Democrats] here are nominating people who have zero appeal beyond a very liberal voter, which is not a Cascade County voter,” Fitzpatrick says. “A Cascade County voter is a moderate. I’ve never changed the content of my campaign material, which focuses on jobs.”

Fitzpatrick went on to win his 2010 House race, won re-election twice, and since then has easily won two terms in the state Senate, running unopposed in 2020. His district includes south Great Falls and the rural stretches of southern Cascade County.

Republicans also have been winning in Cascade County despite an ongoing local intraparty battle, with moderate and conservative factions forming their own separate political-action committees to campaign in primaries and elections for local precinct people.

It was also in 2010 that Republican County Commissioner Joe Briggs won re-election — the first Republican to win re-election to a countywide seat in Great Falls since 1972.

Briggs, who’s still on the commission, agrees that Democrats have alienated moderate voters who support resource industries and gun ownership.

“[Democrats] here are nominating people who have zero appeal beyond a very liberal voter, which is not a Cascade County voter,”

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls

Even if a local Democrat may not fit that mold, they’re hurt by the image portrayed by national Democrats, Briggs says — and he agrees that many voters in Great Falls may be informed on politics more by national media than local media, which offers scant coverage of local races.  

“When people can’t get information about a candidate, they fall back to what they know about the party,” he says. “The average voter [here] is more comfortable with the Republican Party than they are with the Democratic Party.”

Krotkov, who beat a Republican for a state House seat in central Great Falls in 2018, lost in 2020, and lost again in 2022 trying to win the seat back, doesn’t believe local candidates are “too liberal,” because moderate Democrats lost last year as well.

But she says she did notice a difference with voters when campaigning door-to-door last year.

In 2018, people were impressed to see her on their doorstep and said they would vote for her, even if they might be a Republican, she recalls.

But last year she ran into many more people who were openly hostile to Democrats, disparaging then-Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi, or blaming Democrats for fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They were just like, ‘I don’t even want to listen to you,’” Krotkov says.

Toole believes Democrats need to be more aggressive in letting voters know the positions being pursued by Republicans on issues like public schools, voting rights, abortion or tax policy.

“We need to point our fingers at these guys and say, ‘That’s crazy,’” he says. “And it’s hard to do, because they won’t appear with you in public.”

Toole also says Democrats shouldn’t shy away from talking about the accomplishments of President Joe Biden on everything from infrastructure spending to forcing pharmaceutical companies to negotiate on some drug prices.

“Biden has been the most progressive president we’ve seen since FDR or Lyndon Johnson, but nobody talks about the stuff that has happened for Montana, by Biden,” he says. “We treat it as though he’s a liability. We need to change that.”

Yet Toole and other Democrats interviewed for this story say their state party needs to look at itself, too. It should provide more resources for local organizing in Great Falls, both during and between campaigns, craft a coherent economic message, and help effectively get that message out, they say.

“There is a lot of persuasive media that Republicans have been doing a better job at, connecting and resonating with voters,” says Helena Lovick, vice-chair of the Cascade County Democratic Central Committee.

Krotkov says that after her 2022 loss, interest groups that usually support Democrats told her they were advised by the state Democratic Party that Great Falls races were unwinnable and not to bother.

Toole also says the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, while providing some help to Great Falls candidates, essentially dropped the city from its list of targeted races.

State Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan says it’s not true that the party abandoned Great Falls in the 2022 election, and that it had two full-time organizers there last year.

“We had boots on the ground as early as March, a field office in Great Falls and three prioritized races,” she told Montana Free Press. “This year, we look forward to seeing those investments expanded upon.”

Hogan says the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spent 20% of its budget on Great Falls and Havre, “the biggest investment in the entire state.”

A Democrat picked up a House seat in Havre last fall, defeating a Republican incumbent, but Democrats lost all three of the legislative races prioritized by the party in Great Falls.

The party also lacked what’s called a “coordinated campaign” in Great Falls in 2022, Hogan says, because the region’s top Democratic candidate — eastern district congressional nominee Penny Ronning — wouldn’t participate.

That won’t be a problem with Tester on the ballot in 2024, she says, meaning more resources will be available to promote down-ticket races.

A political-action committee that supports progressive candidates, the Big Sky 55+ Action Fund, spent at least half of its $150,000 in campaign funds on the same trio of Great Falls legislative races.

Tully Olson, director of the PAC, said he thinks Democrats can still compete in Great Falls — and that when one looks at those races and other key competitive legislative races across the state, Democrats lost by narrow margins that can be overcome.

“I think they absolutely can do it,” he said of Democrats’ chances to rebound in the Electric City.

Krotkov, who says she won’t run for a fourth time, isn’t so sure.

She has little doubt that, with Tester on the ballot, Democrats will gear up big for his re-election effort and that some of that money will trickle down to try to help win legislative seats and other local races.

But unless Democrats start crafting a message and image that appeals more directly to rural voters, she’s not sure they can do well in Great Falls and Cascade County.

“They’re not reaching out, because they’re just trying to win the big election,” Krotkov says. “They’re busy crafting a message that will allow them to win a plurality of votes, so they’re really just targeting Bozeman and Missoula.”


Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison has been a reporter in Montana for the past four decades and last year retired as chief political reporter for the Montana Television Network. Based in Helena, he’s spent the last 30 years covering state politics, specializing in coverage of health care, energy, campaigns, elections and the Legislature.