Montana Legislature

Legislators in the Montana House debate in Helena in this 2017 file photo.

While the races for U.S. Senate and U.S. House seats got top billing in Tuesday night's primary election, candidates for the 125 open seats in the Montana Legislature also faced off.

Montana Democratic women made their presence known in contested primaries, winning all 15 races in which the party had a woman running. The party had 16 total contested primaries.

Women also accounted for 64 of the 130 Democrats on the ballot in both contested and uncontested races Tuesday. On the Republican side, women prevailed in two of the 21 contested primaries and made up about 13 percent of the party's total candidates.

About 80 women total appeared on the ballot Tuesday from both parties, which would be a record high, according to data kept by the Center for American Women and Politics.

Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena, said the jump in women running statewide is part of a national trend.

“In 2018 across the country, not just in Montana, on the Democratic side there seems to be a particular energy among women interested in running for office, and Democrats interested in voting for women candidates,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the increase in women running for office is somewhat a reaction to the 2016 election of Republican Donald Trump along with the #MeToo movement increasing awareness about sexual harassment and assault.

“There’s been a number of high-profile cases, not just in politics but powerful men involved in scandal involving women,” Johnson said. “I do think what’s most important is Trump and some of the various scandals involving Trump.”

Carol's List — named for Carol Williams, a former longtime legislator who was the first woman to hold the position of Senate majority leader — is a Montana group that works to get women elected.

Executive director Stacie Anderson said Wednesday the election results could help move the Legislature toward having a ratio of women to men that is more reflective of the state's demographics. During the 2017 session, fewer than a third of lawmakers were women while slightly more than half the state's residents are women.

“You need to have all voices at the table to make sure all viewpoints are represented,” Anderson said. “Women see the impact and look around and if nobody’s addressing it, say, ‘I care about this, I’m frustrated, I am going to step up and do the hard work.’”

But identity politics isn't why women had such a strong showing, Anderson said, tying the success more to retail efforts. She pointed not just to legislative candidates but also Kathleen Williams, who won the U.S. House primary despite being outspent by John Heenan and Grant Kier.

“The most important point is they didn’t win because they’re women. They won because they’re willing to do the hard work that it takes to win these hard races. They were out knocking hundreds and in some cases thousands of doors,” Anderson said.

Emma Kerr-Carpenter knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors in her primary win in House District 49, covering part of Billings' downtown and South Side. A political newcomer, Kerr-Carpenter beat out former Billings public schools superintendent Terry Bouck, with 68 percent of the vote to Bouck's 32 percent.

“I worked really hard and tried to meet as many of my neighbors as I could and knock on as many doors as I could," Kerr-Carpenter said.

When those doors opened, some voters didn't see a person who fit their mold of a typical candidate, Kerr-Carpenter said.

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“I’m not what they expect. I’m not what you think of when you think of a politician. I’m a young woman. I think that in and of itself is kind of subversive.”

As an employee at an organization affected by cuts to health care programs made during the 2017 regular and special legislative sessions, Kerr-Carpenter said she decided to run because she wanted to see different outcomes.

“I ran because I got angry. I got angry after this last (legislative) session watching as mental health care was cut. I couldn’t sit by and watch that happen and not fight for what I know is right, which is to pass a budget that does not balance things on the back of vulnerable Montanans.”

Many women candidates were inspired to run in part because of cuts made in 2017, said Amanda Frickle, director of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee that recruits and supports state legislative candidates.

The most wrenching cuts were made to services for the poor, elderly and disabled. Women more often than men are caregivers, either professional or informally, for those groups and might bear the brunt of the cuts more closely.

“When the Legislature doesn’t fund services or the Legislature cuts back specifically on jobs that maybe women share a significant portion of that work, by and large that is going to affect them," Frickle said. "The reason we want our government to look like our voters is the decisions they make impact our voters."

Bryher Herak, who won a contested Democratic primary in House District 75, said she got interested in running because “I do think we need more women in politics.”

Still, she attributes her victory to hours and hours spent talking to voters about state-level issues. Herak beat Joseph Calnan in the district, which includes Montana City and Basin, with 62 percent of the vote to Calnan's 38.

“One of the things I’m finding as I’ve campaigned is that my message about jobs, about schools, about infrastructure, even down to the budget, are all issues that really resonate with women voters — and that’s exciting, to see women talking out those issues, thinking about those issues,” Herak said. “I really think that is what’s going to move us forward.”

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