HELENA — A divided state commission lined out Montana’s two new congressional districts Thursday evening, as chair Maylinn Smith sided with Republicans to create a western district that includes Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell and Butte — but not Helena.
Helena and Lewis and Clark County will be in the newly minted eastern district, starting in the 2022 elections, along with Great Falls, Billings and eastern and south-central Montana.
The 3-2 vote by the Districting and Apportionment Commission came after months of hearings and debates before the panel — including several hours of testimony Thursday, over several proposed maps.
The map chosen Thursday will have one final hearing next week before it’s formally submitted. But Smith said if any changes are made, they would be only technical in nature, fixing any boundary details that could cause problems for local voting officials.
Smith said she decided to back the GOP proposal because it was the fairest overall plan, placed Flathead County in the western district, and created a new district that could be competitive between the political parties.
“To me, with the right person there, you could have a competitive district,” she said. “I appreciate that a lot of people are not going to be happy with me, but that’s what I’m going to go forward with.”
Because of population increases reflected in the 2020 Census, Montana is gaining a congressional seat after 30 years of having one, statewide U.S. House district. Candidates already are running for the two new districts, which will be effective as of next week, for the 2022 election.
The two Democrats on the redistricting panel opposed the adopted map, saying it creates two Republican-leaning districts and doesn’t meet a discretionary criterion that calls for “competitive” districts, whenever possible.
“If you had the candidates in a boat, and the surface of the water is 50 percent plus one person, the victory, all the Republican candidates start out with a boat, and all the Democratic candidates start with a rock around their ankle and they’re trying to even get near the surface,” Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson of Helena said Thursday.
But commission Republicans disagreed, saying votes in recent elections indicate that the right Democratic candidate can win in the newly drawn western district.
Commissioner Jeff Essmann of Billings noted that Democratic candidates who ran for Montana’s statewide congressional seat in 2017 and 2018 would have won the western district, based on the votes they received in those counties and precincts.
“You look at the four House races from the four most recent (elections) when two are won by each party and the average margin there is 1.3%,” he said. “I don’t see how that can be in any way termed `non-competitive.’”
Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller said Republicans were “cherry-picking” past races where Democratic candidates would have done well in the new western district and ignoring the majority of other past contests where Republicans would have won.
She asked the commission to adopt a modified version of a map submitted earlier by her and Lamson, that placed most of Flathead County, including Kalispell, into the eastern district and had Helena, Bozeman, and Livingston in the western district.
Smith and the Republicans voted against that proposal, before voting for the final, adopted map, known as Map 12.
In Map 12, the western district covers 15 western Montana counties and a portion of Pondera County in north-central Montana. It includes Missoula, Kalispell, Bozeman, Butte, Hamilton, Libby, Polson, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The eastern district covers the eastern two-thirds of the state, including Helena, Great Falls, Billings, Livingston, and four Indian reservations. The district leans strongly Republican, although slight less so than eastern districts proposed by Democrats on the commission.
In testimony Thursday, many Republicans and conservatives spoke in favor of Map 12, saying it split only one county and created a relatively level playing field for both political parties.
Among those testifying for Map 12 was former Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, who noted that both he and Democratic former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus had submitted a letter calling for keeping Gallatin and Flathead counties intact and having two Indian reservations in the western district – as they are in Map 12.
However, Baucus later submitted his own note saying that his comments in the letter were not a specific endorsement of Map 12.
Yet Map 12 had many opponents as well, most of whom said Helena should remain in the western district. Many opponents also said Map 12 is meant to dilute the power of organized labor, by putting two counties with substantial numbers of union members — Lewis and Clark and Jefferson – into the eastern district.
Many of those opponents testified in favor of Map 11, the Democratic-submitted map that placed Kalispell in the eastern district, saying that it created a more competitive western district.