Montana’s “purple” electoral history was a point of pride for Kal Munis, a political science professor at Utah Valley University who hails from Philipsburg.
It kept Montana’s politics interesting, he said, and the state bucked national trends.
But Munis’ political landscape is not the same hue after the state’s 2020 election. Montana’s “purple” changed. The state is now red. Deep red.
No Democrat who ran for statewide office in 2020 won their race. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who won re-election in 2018, is now the lone Democrat representing the party on the statewide level.
Republicans hold every other position, from the other U.S. Senate seat to Montana’s state auditor. They also hold a substantial majority in the state Legislature.
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The situation for Dems looks bleak — unless the party can somehow turn things around. Rob Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana, doesn’t think that’s an easy feat.
“I’m not convinced there’s something that can be done,” Saldin said.
According to Saldin, the Republican wins in 2020 were a result he expected. The state trended more and more red in recent years, he said.
As recently as 2012, Democrats were elected to statewide and federal offices, only losing the attorney general and U.S. representative races. But in 2016, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock was the lone Democrat to emerge victorious.
While Saldin anticipated Republican wins in 2020, he was surprised to see “formidable” Democratic opponents defeated by large margins.
Only two races landed within 10 points. The narrowest win for Republicans was Elsie Arntzen, who won re-election to her position as superintendent of public instruction by 8 points against Democrat Melissa Romano. And Republican Sen. Steve Daines bested Bullock to retain his seat by a margin of 10 points.
Not to mention Republicans gained nine seats in the state’s House of Representatives in 2020, earning a two-thirds majority. They also gained a seat in the state Senate, and are only two seats shy of a supermajority there as well.
With Gov. Greg Gianforte at the state’s helm, in 2021 Montana had its first Republican-controlled Legislature with a Republican governor in 16 years.
But it wasn’t always this way, according to Jeff Wiltse, a professor of Montana history at UM.
While Wiltse said the Republican Party controlled the state Legislature for much of the last century, Montanans typically elected Democrats at the statewide level.
Republicans controlled the state Legislature for 28 sessions total between 1889 to 2021, including the last six sessions. That’s compared to 15 sessions where Democrats held control in both the state House and Senate.
Wiltse said Montana sent Democrats to Congress consistently throughout that time. Statewide, Montanans elected Democrats like Pat Williams, Max Baucus, Mike Mansfield and Tester, even while Republican majorities held the Legislature.
Circumstances dictate politics
Wiltse said historically, national progressive waves likely benefited Montana Democrats.
“There have been periods of time in Montana’s history in which liberal and progressive political movements happening nationally have been represented and seen here in Montana,” Wiltse said.
In other words, national movements helmed by Dems in D.C. had sway in Montana politics too.
For example, when busting up monopolies was the national trend in the early 1900s, Montana progressives surged in activity. The state had long been influenced by the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. The mining company dominated that industry in the state, and held sway over Montana politics.
Wiltse said the Anaconda Co. wooed state legislators in Helena with money and resources. And with the state’s representatives in its pocket, the Anaconda Co.'s reach in the policy world was extensive.
But in 1903, the company shut down its operations to protest “unfair” rulings coming out of the Silver Bow County District Court, Wiltse said. In the process, it put 15,000 miners in the state out of work.
Progressive reformers used the opportunity to pass an initiative and referendum amendment through the state Legislature that same year. It gave Montanans a tool to create laws themselves by petitioning for a position on the ballot.
These kinds of progressive efforts, according to Wiltse, also grew in strength during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism was sweeping the country; and again in the 1960s and early 1970s as the environmental movement gained traction nationally.
The 1960s and 70s also had a local issue at play: Montana Republicans advocated for a state sales tax. The tax was shot down by voters, with nearly 70% voting against it in 1971. But it created a backlash against Republicans, Wiltse said.
That gave Democrats control over the state Legislature in the early '70s, Wiltse said. Montana’s new Constitution passed during those years.
Calls for the new Constitution, Wiltse said, were broadly supported. The end result is what he called a “very liberal political document.”
Still, the 1972 Constitution was approved unanimously by all 100 of the Constitutional Convention attendees.
Voters didn’t approve it unanimously, however. The vote was along party lines, Wiltse said, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. The Constitution passed by 2,532 votes — just over 1% of total voter turnout. It just celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.
Loss of local issues
In Wiltse’s estimation, national progressive movements — in the 20th century at least — benefited the state’s Democrats. But, he said, that no longer seems to be the case.
“Today, the larger progressive trends that have occurred nationally have played badly for the Montana Democrats,” Wiltse said.
Saldin agreed. The nationalization of politics in 2020, Saldin said, led to Democratic defeats down the ballot.
Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied nationalization for the better part of 13 years. He said the nationalization of political behavior — like who voters support — happens when people focus on national politics as opposed to what’s happening in their own state or locality.
It can lead to a disconnect with needs on the local level versus the national level, Hopkins said. He added the increased nationalization since the 1990s weakened the Democratic Party while helping Republicans.
“For them (the Democrats) to win power, they needed to be competitive in a broad range of places, and relied on an ability to have different (priorities) in different parts of the country,” Hopkins said.
But that’s not how things are anymore, Hopkins said. Wiltse said national issues like LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and defunding the police likely caused struggles for Democratic candidates in Montana.
Munis, the political scientist from Philipsburg, said nationalization isn’t the only issue Democrats are facing.
“In 2020, there wasn’t nearly as much split-ticket voting as we’ve seen in other Montana elections,” Munis said.
Split-ticket voting happens when people vote for Democrat and Republican candidates on the same ballot. This, Munis said, accounted for the “purple” Montana’s used to. He pointed to nationalization as a cause of less split-ticket voting in the state. In 2020, he said, more people voted for the same party the whole way down their ballots.
Not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic played a role. Montana’s election turned out a record high number of voters in 2020, with 612,075 people casting ballots — over 81% turnout. Only 10 counties in the state held a traditional polling-place election, with the rest sending all voters a ballot in the mail and also offering some early in-person options, according to the Associated Press.
He added geographic polarization is at play too. That’s the idea that different communities are moving more toward one party over time.
Recently, Munis said, there's been a reddening of rural areas in Montana. And Munis said some working-class, urban areas turned red in 2020 too. Munis pointed to Cascade County, where Great Falls is located, as an example.
In 2018, Cascade County elected Tester by about 5 points, and four of its 10 state House reps were Democrats. But two years later, that same county voted for Daines by 12 points over Bullock. And not one Democratic House representative made it back to the state Legislature after the 2020 election.
What about balance?
But even though Montana’s more red, Munis said it still remains important for Democrats to have a place in the state’s politics — and the reasons for this are two-fold.
First, Munis said it matters whether Dems have a sizable minority or a minuscule minority. Some Republicans in the state Legislature break party lines to vote with Democrats. So, having a sizable minority can act as a check for “out-of-control policies,” Munis said.
“Having an additional four to five Democrats is the difference to stopping some of the craziest, far-right-wing bills,” Munis said.
Second, Munis said the public — and voters — like it when they see politicians working together.
Gianforte said in a talk with the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center that he views bipartisanship as important. He said many of the successes from the 2021 Legislature were bipartisan efforts – from increasing teacher pay to passing the $25 million to the Heart Fund, which addresses mental health and addiction recovery.
“I think good ideas come from Democrats, Republicans, Independents — they can come from anywhere,” Gianforte said. He added he thinks the 2023 legislative session will have room for bipartisanship too.
For Democratic candidates, it’s effective to capitalize on bipartisanship and localize elections, Munis said.
Saldin agreed, saying the most effective Democratic candidates in Montana can carve out a brand for themselves that’s distinct from national trends. In other words, personality matters.
It certainly did when it came to the troubled one term of former GOP Gov. Judy Martz. Democrat Brian Schweitzer followed, and his branding iron used for vetoes and ever-present dog were sometimes more discussed than what party he was in. His tenure kicked off 16 years of Democratic governors in Montana.
Saldin and Munis both said Tester does these things well too. Tester’s brand, Munis said, casts him as “Mr. Montana” — it’s in the way he dresses, and in what he champions, like taking on “Big Ag.” And his 2018 campaign hit on bipartisanship, emphasizing the number of bills Tester passed under former Republican President Donald Trump.
Even so, each of the senator’s races have been white-knuckle wins, according to Saldin. In 2006, he won by 3,562 votes – beating his Republican opponent by 0.9%. His elections in 2012 and 2018 were both larger margins, with Tester winning by more than 3 percentage points in those races.
These margins are much smaller than Daines’ 10 point win over Bullock in 2020.
Saldin said Democrats claim the 2020 election was different, with the pandemic preventing bread-and-butter election season activity for Democrats, which consists of door knocking and efforts to get out the vote. Still, he thinks the party has to be concerned for its future in Montana.
According to Saldin, it seems clear that Montana’s going against its traditions of the last few decades. And Wiltse agrees.
“The Democrat and Republican parties had statewide elected officials who were relatively moderate (before 2020),” Wiltse said. “The 2020 election suggests that that is probably in the process of changing.”
Mariah Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.