The Montana Democratic Party assembled in Butte last weekend for its biennial officers’ convention, selecting leadership ahead of a 2024 election cycle that will see the party attempt to claw back ground in the state capitol and defend the seat of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Party delegates re-elected former state lawmaker and Yellowstone County Commissioner Robyn Driscoll as chair, former lawmaker Pat Noonan as vice chair and Wolf Point city councilman Lance FourStar as treasurer. Anja Wookey-Huffman was elected secretary, replacing Jacquie Helt, who did not run to retain her position. All four leadership candidates ran unopposed.
“I really believe that Montana Democrats are united heading into 2024, especially with Sen. Tester on the ballot,” Driscoll, who was first elected party chair in 2019, told Montana Free Press on Tuesday. “Over the last two years, there’s been a ton of grassroots energy. A lot of folks watched the last legislative session and just were really upset at what happened. They’ve awoken a sleeping giant.”
Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, is a top target of the national GOP in its effort to retake the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a slim two-seat majority. At their own officers convention earlier this summer, the Montana Republican Party made their ambitions for the next year-and-a-half clear: beat Tester, take the U.S. Senate.
“This is very, very important. When we win Montana, we win the United States Senate. It’s as simple as that,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican and the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the crowd at the GOP convention. Republican delegates at the convention also re-elected their chair, Don Kaltschmidt.
So far, only former Navy SEAL and Belgrade businessman Tim Sheehy and East Helena construction company owner Jeremy Mygland have entered the Senate race on the Republican side.
In addition to defending Tester’s seat, Montana Democrats hope to increase their numbers in the state Legislature, where Republicans hold a more than two-thirds supermajority that, in conjunction with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, allows them nearly complete control of the lawmaking process.
At their 2023 convention, Montana Republicans made their plan clear: Beat Tester, take the U.S. Senate
Montana Republicans assembled to elect party officials, but it was U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, who occupied the most space at Missoula’s Hilton Garden Inn.
Democrats haven’t had a majority in a legislative chamber since 2007, but the 2022 election was particularly bruising with the GOP driving out the last remaining Democratic lawmakers from once-reliably blue Cascade County. Democrats also failed in 2022 to field a candidate in two-dozen Republican-held districts, especially in the conservative eastern reaches of the state.
“I think that their focus two years ago was really on investing in seats that they felt [were] winnable, rather than putting a bunch of money in seats that are so red — I mean, there’s areas in the state where the Democrat on the ballot gets four votes,” Driscoll said.
Matt Pipinich, the vice chair of the Cascade County Democratic Central Committee, said he left this weekend’s convention feeling positive — at least compared to last election cycle when he thought Democrats in the county didn’t get enough support from the state party.
“2022 did not go as anyone wanted,” he told MTFP. “We can all take ownership in that; it’s not just the blame game.”
Party activists from other counties reported similar challenges, he said. But Pipinich said that this time around Cascade County Democrats are pooling information and resources with neighboring counties. He said he’s also heartened by reassurances from statewide leadership.
“What I’m hearing continually is, ‘Tell us what you need,’” he said.
Driscoll pointed to three new Democratic central committees in rural counties — Liberty, Stillwater and Sheridan — and the hiring of a full-time organizer in Yellowstone County as evidence that Democrats are ready and able to grow their margins in 2024. This election cycle will also feature new legislative maps that should provide Democrats a chance to win back a handful of seats in each chamber.
The hiring of the organizer, former Billings legislative candidate Jenna Martin, is part of a pilot program the party may expand to other counties.
“We have to have a ground game,” Becky Riedl, the chair of the Yellowstone County Democratic Central Committee, told MTFP. “It seemed like in the past, Labor Day would get here and the minute Labor Day passed, there was this flurry of activity. Then there was a flurry of activity during the Legislature. And then nothing.”
Now, knocking on doors and growing the party’s brand in the county is a year-round task, Riedl said.
“The leadership is starting to understand that we have to completely change our ground game,” she said.
This story was updated July 28, 2023, to correct an error concerning the number of Republicans who have entered the U.S. Senate race to date.
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