Montana’s new legislative boundaries aren’t final yet, but they’re close – and it looks like Republicans will be in good position to retain control of the Legislature during the next decade.
Yet the GOP’s hold on the Montana Legislature certainly won’t be a lock starting in 2014. The new districts, which take effect that year for 10 years, should give Montana Democrats a fighting chance to win outright control of either the House or Senate — something they haven’t done since 2004.
Joe Lamson, a Democratic member of the five-person panel that redrew Montana’s 100 House districts and 50 Senate districts, says that’s the way it should be.
Democrats control seven of Montana’s nine statewide offices and often get about half the statewide votes cast for legislative candidates, he notes — so it makes political sense that the configuration of legislative districts should give Democrats a shot at winning the Legislature, too.
“You want a Legislature to kind of reflect where Montanans are (politically),” he says. “We’re building a Legislature that’s supposed to represent the entire state, because we’re dealing with state issues. We think this plan is pretty close to doing that.”
The battlegrounds for legislative control from 2014-2022 likely will be in and around most of Montana’s major cities, with Billings and Bozeman alone the site of eight swing districts that could go either way.
The five-member Districting and Apportion Commission wrapped up its almost-final draft of district boundaries last week and will submit the final plan in February, after considering one last round of public testimony and comments from the 2013 Legislature.
Republicans have a 61-39 advantage in the House for the 2013 Legislature and a 29-21 majority in the state Senate. This next legislature is the last one under the current districts, with which Republicans have lost a chamber outright only once during the last decade.
A IR State Bureau analysis of the new districts endorsed by the commission indicates that Republicans will have 42-47 relatively safe seats in the House, and another six or seven that clearly lean Republican.
Democrats can probably count on 32-39 House seats as safe, and another seven that lean Democratic.
Even if Democrats win all the House districts that are safe or leaning their way, they’d still have to pick up another five to win the majority.
In the Senate, the breakdown is similar. Republicans have perhaps 24 safe seats for the 2014 election and 21 thereafter, while Democrats have 19 or 20 safe seats. To win the Senate, Democrats would have to pick off a half-dozen swing seats that are controlled now by Republicans.
Jon Bennion, a Republican member of the Districting and Apportionment Commission, concedes that with the new districts, Montana Republicans still look like the favorite to control the Legislature. Yet he says the new boundaries in most major cities have been drawn to Democrats’ advantage, often by creating districts that stretch into the suburbs but still contain a heavy dose of urban, Democratic-leaning voters.
“As the plan stands now, Republicans would certainly lose seats in the House, not because of their ideas or their candidates, but simply because of lines that were drawn based on political data and election results,” he says.
Bennion also doesn’t buy the argument that because Democrats are winning statewide seats, the district lines should give them a shot to win the Legislature.
“Just because a Democrat wins statewide office doesn’t mean that is the voters’ preference for the Legislature,” he says. “Montanans are fiercely independent, and so they may prefer a Democrat in some statewide office and they may prefer a Republican as their legislator.”
If these new districts are adopted next year, the battle for control of the Legislature will be waged in about two dozen swing House seats and a dozen of the same in the Senate.
Most of these swing races will be in or around Billings, Missoula, Helena, Bozeman and Great Falls. If Democrats win a few seats that spill into suburbia, they might win a legislative chamber — but they might also have to snag a seat or two in the mostly Republican Flathead Valley or in smaller cities, which is even tougher.
If Democrats can’t manage those gains, you’ll see Republicans continue to dominate the Montana Legislature for the next decade — much like they have the previous two decades.
“I think (the commission plan) creates a competitive situation where neither party has a lock on the Legislature for the next 10 years,” Lamson says. “It’s going to go back and forth, I would think.”