Missoula Democrats, Republicans glean lessons from 2019 City Council races

Vondene Kopetski, head of the Missoula County Republicans, watches as elections officials recount ballots in the Ward 6 race for the Missoula City Council. Kopetski said local Republicans are already planning for what they hope are additional inroads in local politics. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Members of the Missoula County Republicans celebrated on election night after claiming two additional seats on the City Council, bringing their ranks to three on the body of 12.

The outcome left them short of the balance they’d hoped to achieve, though it did signal progress for conservatives, who have long been outnumbered by the council’s progressive members.

“We haven’t achieved that balance yet, but we’re working toward it,” said Vondene Kopetski, leader of the Missoula County Republicans. “The fact that we had some successes is reflective of the community. I think the community is saying it would like to see more balance on the City Council.”

With the 2019 election now in the rearview mirror, leaders from both parties considered their successes and shortcomings throughout the campaign, and they’ve vowed to make adjustments.

Democrats look to improve their messaging on complicated issues, such as taxes, while Republicans see an opportunity to make additional inroads, so will work to widen their party’s local infrastructure.

“We’re not going to wait – you’re going to see us do a lot in two years,” said Kopetski, looking ahead to 2021 and the next municipal race. “With each successive year, we’ve made a little bit of inroads here in Missoula, and we’re definitely paying attention to the momentum we have.”

While the Missoula City Council is billed as nonpartisan, members of both parties endorse their preferred candidates each election cycle. This year, Republicans found candidates for each of the six council races, winning two of them.

For the past seven years, conservatives have had but a single voice on the council. Nine years ago, it was Adam Hertz who won a seat in Ward 1 by just 3 votes, followed in 2015 by Harlan Wells in Ward 2, who won by 148 votes but whose tenure was short. Jesse Ramos won his seat in Ward 4 in a four-way race in 2017 and sees himself as the council’s lone conservative.

But this year, Republican-backed candidates grabbed two more seats, with John Cantos winning in Ward 5 and Sandy Vasecka winning Ward 6 by 12 votes. Combined with Ramos, it gives conservatives three seats on the council.

Republicans believe taxes and the cost of housing are playing in their favor.

“I think the demographics are changing,” said Kopetski. “As housing becomes more prohibitive, people are moving around to different areas. I think that effected us in a couple different ways, and might have resulted in the wins we had. Things are changing in Missoula, and the changes sometimes having a negative impact on the voters helped.”

Ward 4 City Council member Jesse Ramos, left, stands with incoming Ward 6 City Council member Sandy Vasecka. Ramos believes Republicans like he and Vasecka will continue to pick up local seats if voters “vote with their wallets.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Members of the Missoula County Democrats aren’t alarmed by this year’s election results, though they do believe they could improve their messaging.

The city’s economy is strong, they say, with new businesses moving in. Growth remains robust, signaling confidence in the local market, and the unemployment rate is among the lowest in the state.

But perceptions around taxes remain the largest issue playing against them, and Missoula progressives failed to make an appealing argument to voters – that taxation is set by the Republican led Legislature and not the City Council.

But in the end, they weren’t able to counter the “taxed enough already” mantra that helped Republicans pick up two new seats.

“The big thing we could have hammered harder on is the tax increases,” said Todd Mowbray, vice chair of the Missoula County Democrats. “It’s not the city or county. They’re held hostage by state law, and they can only raise revenue in one or two very limited ways.

“And the city certainly isn’t responsible for the appraisal process. That again is a state function. We could have expressed those facts a little better.”

Just as local Republicans work to hone their base, local Democrats will look to the next campaign to hone their messaging. Mowbray didn’t disagree with Kopetski in suggesting that the demographics in some city wards are changing.

“We’re in the process of reexamining the effort,” he said. “We made a good effort. The demographics in some of these areas are changing a bit, and we need to look into how better to inform and approach people.”

Also different in this year’s election was the emergence of an ambitious conservative bent on changing the dynamics of the City Council. Ramos often laments being the council’s “only” conservative voice, and he organized what he dubbed “Team Liberty” in hopes of changing that.

Ramos carried that message throughout the campaign and even knocked doors with some conservative candidates. As he put it, “we showed up” and “contested every seat.”

“Even people that might not agree with me think that it’s good to have a split council,” he said. “When you have two different ideologies represented in that rigorous debate, people recognize it as being the pivotal cornerstone of democracy.”

Ramos, who hasn’t announced his plans for 2021 when he’s up for reelection, believes taxes and the cost of housing helped give his candidates the toe-hold they needed to make gains this year.

“People are voting with their wallets, and the people fighting for that are people on the fiscally conservative side of things,” he said. “A lot of things council is doing is done with good intentions. But I think people have seen they’ve had those policies enacted for 10 or 20 years and they have horrible consequences.”

While that can be disputed, Ramos said such messaging plays in the favor of Missoula County Republicans, who have their eyes set on the future. But to secure future success, he said, his party will need to get more organized.

“Democrats did a great job with their central committee by having 40 or 50 people writing letters to the editor,” he said. “We need that structure for our central committee. We need more volunteers, more door knockers, and we need to build up our infrastructure.

“The candidates can’t be responsible for all of that. At some point, it’s the infrastructure of the party, and we need to work on consistently building that.”