Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign responded following a hearing for a bill that would create a “jungle primary” in the state for the incumbent candidate’s 2024 primary race.

“At a time when inflation and high costs are hurting Montana families, out of touch politicians in Helena are showing that they care more about power than addressing the real issues facing the state,” said Tester’s campaign manager Shelbi Dantic in a statement Friday.

If Senate Bill 566, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, were to pass, the top two votegetters regardless of party affiliation advance to the general election.

“They know Jon Tester is a proven leader with deep connections to Montanans, and are trying to change local election laws to look more like California’s in an attempt to gain political power for themselves,” the statement said. “While they are playing political games in Helena, Jon is working every day in Washington to defend Montana by cutting prescription drug costs, fighting for our veterans, and standing up for Montana values.”

Hertz discussed a potential amendment during a hearing on the bill in the House State Administration Committee on Friday. The amendment would eliminate the sunset date on the bill, a point of controversy discussed on the Senate floor, applying the jungle primary method in 2026 to the U.S. House races and to all statehouse races in 2028.

Tester’s 2024 race will be one of the most closely followed in the nation as his re-election would be one of a handful that would determine if Senate Democrats maintain their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

Hertz said he received “obscene” messages, mostly from out of state calling him a “cheater” who wants to “rig elections.”

“How can I be cheating or rigging an election, when all I’m looking for is that the candidate who moves on receives the majority of votes by the citizens of Montana,” Hertz said.

There were twice as many opponents compared to proponents of the bill in the hearing, with the Chair and Treasurer of Montana’s Libertarian Party and John Lamb, who ran as a Libertarian in Montana’s Western Congressional District in 2022, testifying against the bill.

“There’s people that won’t vote for Republican or Democrat that are looking for a constitutional party, looking for Libertarian Party, independent. And as a libertarian, we give people that third choice,” Lamb said. “We would have to eliminate all parties to have something like this work.”

Hertz said that he expects more than $200 million in outside funds to pour into Montana for the upcoming election cycle from outside sources and that third party candidates would be “weaponized” by the two major parties.

Drafting emails for the bill, requested by Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, show heavy influence from Charles Denowh, finance director for Montana’s Republican congressional delegation, Rep. Matt Rosendale and Sen. Steve Daines.

Denowh is registered as a lobbyist with the Montana Group and previously served as Executive Director of the Montana Republican Party.

Denowh initiated the changes to the originally proposed 2025 sunset date and the application to the 2024 U.S. Senate race in a March 26 email.

Denowh suggested the bill move closer to the election process in Washington and California.

“Those statutes have been tested by a lot of litigation, so the closer we are to them, the better,” Denowh said in a March 27 email.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said in an March emails that he’d like Hertz’s initiative to be a “priority bill.”

During the hearing, Rep. Linda Reksten, R- Polson, who described herself as an “ex-citizen” of California, asked Hertz how he could guarantee one party doesn’t end up with both top slots.

“Montana’s not California,” Hertz said. “There’s so many gerrymandered districts in that particular state and many other states, only certain parties are going to win certain districts and I don’t see this causing the problem. What it might do is give you a choice.

“We vote for the person. We don’t always vote for the party.”

The New York Times reported that Hertz was part of a text chain with several lawmakers who discussed the bill. The Times reported Fitzpatrick said in the messages that the bill “came from Daines” and was the “brainchild of the Jason Thielman.”

Thielman is the Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Daines leads.

Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, discussed the reporting in the meeting in his questions to Hertz.

“Do you believe that this is actually a politically neutral bill?” Stafman asked Hertz.

Hertz said yes.

“This is not the brainchild of people you may have mentioned,” Hertz said.

Hertz said he works with Denowh like people do with lots of lobbyists in the capitol.

An earlier version of the bill was tabled in the Senate State Administration Committee on March 31, usually a sign the bill is dead, but then taken off the table on April 3 and passed, according to the legislative website.

Rep. Denise Baum, D-Billings, asked Hertz about the need for this legislation as Senate races in the state had been won with over 50% of the state’s vote during the last 10 years. Hertz cited U.S. Senate races where candidates won with less than 50% of the vote, in 1996, 2006 and 2012.

“History always has a possibility of repeating itself,” Hertz said. “The current individual who will be running in 2024 got 50.3 percent, I suspect he will have a very good chance of doing that again.”

Executive action on the bill, and likely the proposed amendment, are slated for Monday.