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Election look: Possible GOP supermajority, a midterm environment, looming House races

Don “K” Kaltschmidt addresses the crowd at the GOP annual winter kickoff in January (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

The 2022 election in Montana is well underway.

Such a declaration might seem a bit premature – there’s still time for new candidates to enter their races, dozens of contested primaries to be sorted before June, nine months before November. Some prospective electeds are likely still more concerned with calving season.

Yet, with a pair of U.S. House seats up for grabs, the possibility for a bicameral supermajority in the state Legislature on the horizon, and the first two years of the Joe Biden administration on the ballot, the stakes are high, the gears of political machinery at Democratic and Republican headquarters in the state are turning, and key themes are emerging.

This year, more than 200 state legislative candidates had filed for the 125 seats in play by Valentine’s Day, including a handful of open seats in the Senate and more than a dozen in the House, according to the Montana Secretary of State, and 11 for either seat in Congress. In some races, even local ones, money is already pouring in.

Ryan Zinke, the likely frontrunner in the Republican primary for Montana’s newly created western U.S. House district, has raised more than $1.4 million. Cora Neumann, the top fundraising Democrat in the race, has brought in more than $770,000. And a bill passed in the 2021 session increased donation limits for legislative candidates to $400, meaning more money in the local races that will ultimately determine whether the Montana GOP merely controls the agenda in Helena or dominates it.

Former House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, a Democrat who’s now running for an open Great Falls-area Senate seat, had raised more than $12,500 by the end of 2021, and now says he’s at $20,000. His opponent, Republican State Rep. Jeremy Trebas, had raised $4,800 by the end of 2021. 

“I think it’s probably pretty abnormal to have legislative races in Montana like that,” Schreiner said. “There aren’t a ton of $400 donations coming in, but you are seeing the volume of individual donations increase in high-profile races.”

In the rearview mirror is the 2020 election. Even as a Democrat took the White House, Montana voters supported Trump 57% to Biden’s 41% (albeit a diminished margin compared to Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton four years earlier), sent a Republican to the Governor’s Office for the first time in 16 years, as well as to every other statewide position, and expanded an already sizable legislative majority by winning seats in some previously Democratic territory.

It was one of the highest-turnout elections in Montana history, and all those extra ballots seemed largely to reward the GOP. Primaries in that same cycle also saw the continued decline of once-high profile moderate Republicans in favor of a growing caucus of hard-right conservatives, with people like Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, defeating Sen. Nancy Ballance.

“Our historic red wave election has delivered clear results for Montanans and changed the trajectory of the state of Montana,” said state GOP chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt at the party’s 2022 winter kickoff in January, an event at a hotel ballroom in Helena where politicos chatted over steaks and party officials thumped their chests ahead of 2022. Figures like Biden, Nancy Pelsoi and Chuck Schumer took up outsized airtime.

“With Republican leadership in every statewide office, our conservative priorities have been put first,” Kaltschmidt said.

“This year, the national spotlight is on Montana and our new congressional seat. It will be the battleground for the U.S. House in our effort to take (Democratic house Speaker Nancy) Pelosi’s gavel from her,” he continued.

GOP officials said they’re now creating a twin-pronged operation to nab the newly created congressional seats and run local candidates across the map to push the needle that much further in Helena, where just two more seats across the Legislature will create a powerful two-thirds majority.

Democrats, meanwhile, will have to fight uphill in a midterm political environment shaped by the Biden presidency. They aim to hold off supermajority control of the legislative agenda, win a U.S. House seat that experts say could be in play for the right candidate, and perhaps prove that some of the results in 2020 were flukes, that perhaps Montana has retained some of its idiosyncratic, ticket-splitting political character despite a shifting national environment.

“Montanans like the contrast of ideas that come from split government,” said Scott McNeil, the director of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “That’s why Democrats held the Governor’s Office for 16 years, that’s why we’re one of the only states with a split Senate delegation. Montanans might not like unitary control.”

Receding tides?

Candidate quality, connections and charisma are always important on the campaign trail. But so are the underlying fundamentals of a map and voter behavior.

In 2020, Republicans made significant gains across that map, including in communities like Great Falls and even Bozeman where races are often close, if not Democratic leaning. This year, they’re hoping to double down on those gains as well as make inroads into Helena, a stubbornly Democratic area in otherwise pink-hued Lewis and Clark County.

Former Democratic lawmakers from the Cascade County area who lost races to Republicans after the 2019 session include Jasmine Krotkov and Barbara Bessette, both of whom are running again. The hope at party headquarters is that a reversion to the mean partisan environment could come in 2022 without Trump on the ballot, and with Republicans having to stretch their resources and candidate bench further, the red tides will recede.

Democratic candidates are also far more willing to hit the pavement this time around than in the pre-vaccinated days of 2020, when would-be politicians across the country attributed lackluster performance to, at least in part, a lack of in-person campaigning.

“I don’t think we’re ready to call (2020) a trend yet,” said Schreiner. 

McNeil also said that explosive population growth in left-leaning communities like Bozeman and Missoula will help Democrats overall in the coming years. Gallatin County, he noted, was once won by Republican Mitt Romney; it went for Biden by around 7 points in 2020.

However, that’s just one of the fundamentals.

“Voting turnout in 2020 was astronomical in Montana,” said Jeremy Johnson, a professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena. “I don’t think we’ll get those numbers again. It’s an intellectually reasonable position to hold that you might have a better chance in 2022 than 2020. But the other problem is a Democratic president has been in office in 2020.” 

Midterms with Democratic presidents have proven hard for the Montana party in recent elections, and Biden’s plummeting approval numbers won’t help. For example, 2010 was bad for the minority, but at that point, Democrats in the state had much more to lose. Now, Republicans will have to hold seats where they might have over-performed expectations in the past. However, Montana is also an overwhelmingly white, aging state with significant evangelical and conservative Catholic populations that have all consolidated under the banner of the GOP, Johnson said.

“What I’m getting at is it’s just about who turns out,” he said. 

Also crucial is the rate of ticket splitting, which declined in 2020.  Max Baucus, a Democrat, albeit a conservative one, once regularly commanded massive leads in U.S. Senate races. Those days are likely over, but Montana is a state that’s supported every Republican president since 1992 and still elected two Democratic governors, Democratic U.S. Senators and so on — though Republicans would contend the days of Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who’s not up for re-election until 2024 but has won in previous nail biters — are numbered.

“It’s a real shame that Sen. Tester isn’t on the ballot this year, because I have a feeling that y’all would hold him accountable,” said Tommy Hicks, the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, at the Montana GOP banquet. “He’s forgotten he works for the people of Montana, not for Chuck Schumer or AOC.”

A national message 

A year after the GOP’s historic success in 2020, the party’s legislators passed a slate of bills overhauling and cutting income taxes, banning abortions after 20 weeks gestational age, altering the judicial nominating process, creating one of the country’s broadest bans on vaccine requirements, erecting a COVID-19 liability shield, expanding concealed carry of firearms and more. 

One floor down in the Capitol building, Gov. Greg Gianforte ended a mask mandate erected under Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, promised to sign many of the bills his predecessor vetoed and pulled Montana from federal enhanced pandemic unemployment benefits. Around the corner, Attorney General Austin Knudsen has mounted legal challenges to federal vaccine mandates and spearheaded the Republican legal defense in the Montana courts amid a conflict over subpoena powers and a series of lawsuits challenging bills passed in the 2021 session. In sum, it was a red wave election that led to a sea change in Helena.

“I think you’ve seen a huge change in the state of Montana, in how we’ve operated and how we’ve tried to open Montana for business,” said Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, in a January interview. “It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach.” 

Candidates are still running on these policies — not every item on the 2021 legislative agenda was accomplished. However, trifecta control of state government means there’s no veto pen to run against, yielding to a message that focuses on Democrats in Washington, D.C., and seeks to link them to the ones back home.

“No Montana Democrat should get a pass for standing in lockstep support of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s disastrous liberal agenda,” state Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, told a crowd of Republican legislative candidates at a January event outside the Secretary of State’s office. 

Voters, contends Blasdel, are frustrated with the federal government. 

“You’re seeing more government, and not a lot of answers and solutions to the major problems that are facing Montana — inflation and overregulation and the challenges with that,” he said.

Republicans in the state have been critical of federal packages like the American Rescue Plan Act, which they label Democratic wishlists that are overheating the economy and adding to the deficit, though they’ve also had an active hand in shaping how the state distributes money from ARPA and other federal legislation and proudly touted investments in certain communities.

Focusing on national politics in a midterm can be a good bet for the GOP, said Johnson. These elections often disfavor the party in power, and with the White House, a slim majority in Congress and a split Senate, Democrats at the national level have more to lose.

“The national mood tends to overwhelm local concerns,” Johnson said.

Republican candidates and current lawmakers assemble to hear speeches from leadership in January at the Capitol in Helena (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

A novel congressional election in Montana further turns heads toward (and from) D.C., especially with promises from Republican state leadership that Montana is the key to ousting Democrats from the U.S. House majority. Zinke, who touts endorsements from Trump and many top Montana Republicans, has emerged as the likely frontrunner and top fundraiser in the GOP primary for the Montana First, a district that more or less covers the state’s western third, including Gallatin County and fast-growing, liberal Bozeman, but excluding Lewis and Clark County and Helena, another Democratic stronghold.

The district favors Republicans, but could still be in play for a Democratic candidate that outperforms expectations relative to Montana’s conservative partisan environment, and will certainly be more competitive than the eastern district covering the remainder of the state. Three Democrats have emerged as the main contestants in the primary: nonprofit director Cora Neumann, who leads her field in fundraising, former Public Service Commission candidate and attorney Monica Tranel and former lawmaker Tom Winter.

Exactly to what degree that election will serve to energize bases in either party remains to be seen, but Johnson said it will certainly stir interest more than a typical midterm would. He also noted, however, that with 10 seats separating Rs and Ds in Congress and dozens of potentially competitive districts across the country, it may be a bit of a stretch to assume that Montana’s two Republican-leaning districts will be the ultimate decision maker.

“It always helps,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who heads the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. “Our statewide candidates work together with our legislative candidates. We knock on doors for each other and just spread our message.” 

Looming supermajority

On the other side, Democrats are seeking to keep attention as local as possible to highlight the unitary control the GOP has of the organs of government.

“Republicans have done a very good job nationalizing our local elections,” said Schreiner, the former House Minority Leader from Great Falls. He’s challenging current state Rep. Trebas for Senate District 13 in an open seat in Cascade County. “Our goal is to remind people that all politics is local, and your state legislature is probably the most impactful in your day to day life.”

Schreiner said 2019, his last session before he left the legislature to run for governor, was characterized by bipartisan solutions brokered between a GOP-led Legislature and Democratic governor — Medicaid expansion renewal and infrastructure funding, for example. The 2021 session had some major bipartisan projects as well, such as creating a structure to distribute federal American Rescue Plan Act Funds and another to regulate recreational marijuana, though Schreiner said it’s not a Legislature he recognizes.

“There was a movement to extremism to the nth degree,” he said. 

A bicameral supermajority is a powerful tool in state politics, and the possibility of Republicans winning two-thirds majorities in the next session looms large over the 2022 election. The party already holds such a majority in the state House and is just two seats shy in the state Senate.

But a GOP supermajority could mean more than additional tax cuts. Amendments to the Montana Constitution by legislative referendum require a two-thirds vote by the body as a whole, meaning that two more Republican-controlled seats in either chamber can make adding constitutional amendments to the ballot possible without Democratic support, provided the majority caucus votes in unity. Voters still need to approve these amendments — the process erects several hurdles by design — but the prospect of a slew of constitutional amendment ballot initiatives has elicited concern from Democrats.

“At the point that you put stuff on the ballot, it becomes a marketing campaign,” said Schreiner. 

Some prominent Republicans in the state, namely influential Flathead County lawmaker and Montana Republican State Central Committee treasurer Derek Skees, have called for scrapping the 1972 Montana Constitution in its entirety, especially due to a broad privacy protection provision that courts have interpreted to protect access to abortion in the state, even if federal protections were to go away.

It’s under that section, and due to a two-decade old Supreme Court ruling commonly known as “Armstrong,” that several plaintiffs have challenged a slew of abortion restrictions passed in the 2021 session. Calling a constitutional convention also requires approval from Montana voters, though the process can be initiated by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

“Everybody finds value and protection in the Constitution,” Schreiner said. “One party getting a supermajority to alter that document is a really scary proposition.”

McNeil said he thinks voters — and, indeed, potential donors — are sensitive to this.

“I have a hard time believing that taking away the right to privacy is something that resonates with voters,” he said. “Once voters learn about what the risks are, they become more attuned to them.”

And it’s no certain bet that the caucus would unify behind every constitutional amendment its members put forth. In the 2021 session, a bill to refer a “personhood amendment” to define in the Constitution that life begins at conception passed out of the state House but failed to reach two-thirds’ support across the Legislature when all Senate Democrats and two Republicans — including one, Sen. Brian Hoven of Great Falls, who won’t be returning next session — voted against it.

And the GOP, with its larger map, has far more contested primaries to sort through, many of which pit lawmakers from more moderate factions within the party against the hard line. One of these races is in Senate District 20, where Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, one of the legislative Republicans most likely to buck the party line in 2021, is running for an open seat against former House Judiciary Committee Chair Barry Usher. (Usher, for the record, had raised about $20,000 by the end of 2021 to Custer’s roughly $5,000).

“It would be a mistake to think that Republicans are unified on every issue,” Johnson said. “And for some of this, that’s what you need.”