HELENA – As Montanans start early voting this week, they’ll be choosing not only two of the state’s members of Congress but also 125 offices that will have far more influence on state policy: Montana House and Senate seats.
Republicans have a firm hold on majorities in the state Senate and House and aren’t likely to surrender that position in three weeks. They control the House 59-41 and the Senate 32-18.
However, Democrats hold out hope they can make some gains – which could make a difference on key issues before the 2019 Legislature.
“Even though Republicans control both chambers, a lot of the most important issues in the last legislative sessions came down to a handful of votes,” says David Parker, Montana State University political scientist and MTN analyst.
“If Democrats can just pick up four or five seats in the House and maybe one or two in the Senate, that could give (Democratic) Gov. Steve Bullock just enough room to pass that much more of his agenda.”
Democrats are pushing a similar message, saying if voters put more of them in office, they’ll be in a position to deliver on infrastructure spending, health-care policy and maybe even changes to make the state tax system more equitable.
“I just think the choice is really clear,” says Amanda Frickle, head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Republicans have not been looking out for the working people in this state.
“The fact that the ultra-wealthy pay the same income-tax rate as a single mother who’s making minimum wage? That’s an unfair system.”
Republicans, however, don’t seem worried about losing their majorities or, for that matter, many seats at all – and aren’t changing their tried-and-true message of supporting lower taxes and less government spending.
“One of the main themes is to try to slow the growth of state government, and, in so doing, hopefully, cut back on people’s tax obligations,” says state Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Bozeman, who chairs the GOP’s Legislative Campaign Committee. “Because those two things, in my experience, seems to go together.”
The vast majority of the 100 House seats and 25 Senate seats up for election this year probably won’t be close, as each major party tends to dominate certain districts. But two dozen races are legitimate swing seats, giving either party a chance to win.
Most of these swing seats are in Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls. A handful are in other areas of the state.
Frickle says Democratic enthusiasm is high this year and that the party hopes a high turnout of sympathetic voters will help it gains some legislative seats.
Republicans claim the same edge, however, especially with President Trump trying to fire up GOP voters, with three visits to the state this summer and fall.
Vance says it’s up to individual legislative candidates to decide if they want to stress their support of the president, but that he thinks the president continues to poll well in many parts of the state.
Frickle says Republicans can try to nationalize these races if they want, but that Democratic candidates will be trying to keep it focused on the local issues decided by the Legislature.
“We will be reminding (people that these races are about the potholes in their streets,” she says. “It’s about whether rural access hospitals remain open. It’s about whether their property taxes continue to go up because Republicans are failing to pass these larger infrastructure packages. … It’s about local issues.”
Here’s an overview of some of the individual swing legislative contests in the state:
Senate District 11 (northwest Great Falls, Vaughn, Sun Prairie): In this open seat, state Rep. Tom Jacobson, a Democrat, competes with former state Rep. Adam Rosendale, who recently moved here from Billings.
SD13 (central and east Great Falls): Sen. Brian Hoven defends his seat against Democrat Bob Moretti.
SD14 (Havre and the Golden Triangle): Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Havre, faces well-known Democrat Paul Tuss, an economic-development executive from Havre.
SD32 (west Bozeman and the Gallatin River Valley): Sen. Jedediah Hinkle of Bozeman tries to hold onto this urban-suburban-rural seat, against Democrat Pat Flowers of Bozeman.
House District 22 (northwest Great Falls): First-term Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway is being challenged by Democrat Laura Dever.
HD25 (central Great Falls): Republican Rep. Jeremy Trebas tries to keep this traditionally Democratic seat, against challenger Jasmine Krotkov.
HD51 (south Billings): Republican Frank Fleming and Democrat Darryl Wilson compete for an open seat that has been Democratic in the past.
HD52 (south-central Billings): Democrat Amelia Marquez and Republican Rodney Garcia run for an open seat in a working-class neighborhood.
HD65 (northwest Bozeman): Democrat Christopher Pope and Republican Jane Gilette battle for an open seat that Pope lost two years ago.
HD96 (northwest Missoula and Frenchtown): Republican Rep. Adam Hertz runs for re-election against Democrat Thomas Winter, in a district that has often been Democratic.
Senate District 24 (north-central Billings): Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, is being challenged by former Republican House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray.
SD49 (west Missoula and suburban western Missoula County): Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who won a close race four years ago, faces former University of Montana running back Chase Reynolds, a Republican from Missoula.
House District 3 (Columbia Falls and North Fork Valley): Democratic Rep. Zac Perry of Hungry Horse faces the man he beat four years ago, Republican Jerry O’Neil.
HD21 (north Great Falls): Term-limited state Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, tries to switch houses by running in this open seat, against Democrat Leesha Ford.
HD50 (central Billings): Democrat Jade Bahr is facing Republican Quentin Eggart in this open seat.
HD60 (Livingston): Democratic Rep. Laurie Bishop of Livingston faces Republican Dan Skattum, who held this swing seat earlier.
HD93 (Ronan and the Mission Valley): Republican former legislator Joe Read is trying to win this open seat back for the GOP, against Democrat Eldena Bear Don’t Walk.