For years, Montanans have sneered at out-of-state pundits and journalists who characterized the state as “deep red,” ignoring its century-old purple hue due to a legacy of union activism and general ticket-splitting pragmatism.
That changed Tuesday. Red now glows as brightly in Montana as it does in the surrounding states of Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.
Republican Senator Steve Daines fended off a challenge from Governor Steve Bullock to help keep the US Senate in Republican hands. Representative Greg Gianforte (infamous for body-slamming a reporter on the eve of his 2017 special election victory) handily defeated Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, ending 16 years of Democratic tenancy of the governor’s office. Matt Rosendale, the Republican state auditor, defeated Democrat Kathleen Williams, who lost to Gianforte when seeking the same seat two years earlier.
Republicans increased their majorities in the both houses of the Legislature. And, with 76 percent of the vote counted Wednesday morning, the GOP claimed all the statewide down-ballot races—attorney general, auditor, secretary of state, and state schools superintendent.
“I don’t know that [such a complete sweep] has ever happened before,” said Chuck Johnson, a longtime Montana political journalist, now retired. Pages rustled as he searched a Montana elections atlas, through year after year of split-ticket results, until he came to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, a Democratic mirror image of Tuesday night’s Republican rout.
Montana didn’t just go Republican on Tuesday. It went deeply conservative Republican. Through the last several every-other-year legislative sessions, Democrats have successfully wrangled legislation such as Medicaid expansion with the help of a group of moderate Republicans known as the Solutions Caucus.
But the Solutions Caucus saw its ranks thinned in the June primary, some of its members losing out to more conservative candidates who bill themselves as the 38 Special, complete with name tags adorned with the trademark ammunition.
“This is not the Republican Party of Marc Racicot and Bob Brown,” said University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin. Racicot, who served as Montana’s governor from 1993 to 2001 and headed the Republican National Committee in 2002–03, declared his intention shortly before the election to vote for Biden. Brown, a former Montana secretary of state and Senate president, issued a “Declaration of Independence” from the Montana Republican Party in a July op-ed, in which he termed Trump a “deadly prankster” and “scoundrel” and Daines and Gianforte the president’s “puppets.”
Saldin said Democrats also suffer from the loss of “cult-of-personality” candidates such as former Senator Max Baucus and Representative Pat Williams, who served 36 years and 18 years, respectively, in those positions before retiring; as well as former governor Brian Schweitzer, whose outsize personality featured prominently in news coverage.
Baucus launched his successful 1974 congressional campaign by walking 630 miles across Montana; he was elected to the Senate four years later, rose to chair the Senate Finance Committee, and later served as ambassador to China. Williams championed labor and the arts, the latter via his support for the National Endowment for the Arts, earning him the nickname “Porno Pat” from conservatives. The family is its own political dynasty: his wife, Carol Williams, was Montana’s first woman Senate majority leader, and their daughter, Whitney, waged an unsuccessful campaign this year for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“These people had their own personal brands that were at least somewhat different than the party brand,” Saldin said.
But when a candidate is more of a generic Republican or Democrat, “it’s just a slaughter,” he said.
State Senate majority leader Fred Thomas chose a different term.
“This election in Montana was a landmark election for this state. The state’s finally set a course where we’re 100 percent moving in the right direction with officeholders.… We’ve been hoping and praying for a long time, and now it’s finally happened.”
Just as Democratic governors and lawmakers teamed up with the Solutions Caucus to pass legislation, Democratic governors wielded their veto pen—or, in the case of Schweitzer, governor from 2005 to ’13, a sizzling “veto” branding iron that set paper copies of doomed Republican-backed bills aflame—to defeat Republican-backed legislation on issues such as abortion restrictions.
Vetoes won’t be necessary now. Gianforte’s 16-page Montana Comeback Plan includes measures such as stricter eligibility requirements for the Medicare expansion enacted in 2016 that now covers nearly one in 10 Montanans. In 2019, the Legislature, with votes from the Solutions Caucus, voted to continue Medicaid expansion, albeit with the addition of work requirements.
Gianforte, a software entrepreneur and the wealthiest member of the House, campaigned on a vow to boost the state’s economy by cutting taxes and regulations.
“We need to reduce the burden on our hardworking families so they can thrive and prosper again,” he said in declaring victory.
Thomas said the Legislature’s first order of business will be to take a hard look at the state budget. “Most everybody in the public has had to take a haircut one way or the other, and now so will the government,” Thomas said.
Thomas, just as Gianforte did during the campaign, cited the effect on Montana’s economy of statewide shutdown imposed by Bullock at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Montana.
“It seems like a lot of politics was played with the Covid-19 virus epidemic and the emergency rules,” Thomas said. Bullock eased those restrictions in June, and in recent weeks the rate of infection in Montana has soared, with the state now ranked fourth in the nation in terms of per capita cases.
Thomas used another measure. “In terms of mortality, the virus ended in Montana in May,” he said. As of Wednesday, Montana had seen 35,955 cases and 404 deaths from the virus—and all but 16 of those deaths have occurred since the end of May.
Veteran Montana political reporter Mike Dennison received a draft of a legislative agenda, more detailed than Gianforte’s outline, drawn up by House Republicans in anticipation of his victory. Among its goals: curtailing health boards’ authority to impose Covid-19 restrictions, expanding public assistance to private schools, and eliminating same-day voter registration.
The Montana Democratic Party’s executive director Sandi Luckey issued a terse statement in response to Tuesday’s results:
Creating good jobs has never been more important. Protecting access to quality, affordable health care has never been more important. Making sure our public schools are equipped to meet the challenges of our time has never been more important. Montana faces serious challenges, and Montana Democrats will continue to meet them head-on—as we always have.
Williams, the former representative, took the long view. “When we have a big Democratic victory, my political friends whoop and holler and blow their horns, [saying], ‘Now the Republican Party is dead, and the Democratic Party will rule forever. So [on Tuesday] the Republicans had a very good night. But there are more nights to come.”