Montana appears well down the road to becoming a one-party, Republican, deeply conservative state, like the states that surround us. Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s survival was an anomaly best explained by his personal popularity and his opponent’s weakness.
In the late 60s, and 70s, when I was first cutting my teeth in politics, the Democrats were Montana’s dominant party. They controlled the statewide offices, including the entire congressional delegation, the legislature and the office of Governor. At Republican state conventions in that era, Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Great Falls native Sen. Bill Roth of Delaware performed the keynote functions because there were no big-name Montana Republicans to do so.
While some beneficial and historic reforms resulted from that time, Republicans were too weak to provide an adequate check on the Democrats for nearly a decade. For part of that period, outnumbered by better than two to one, Republicans were unable to even prevent Democrats from changing parliamentary rules in the legislature. Unchecked power is never a healthy thing in a representative democracy, no matter who’s in power.
What a difference a half century makes. Montana is now a Republican red and increasingly one-party state.
That, and his personal grudge against Tester, is no doubt why President Trump kept returning to Montana to rescue the shaky Matt Rosendale candidacy. While the Trump strategy failed to defeat Tester by a whisker, it might have succeeded in revealing the power of the red tide now rising here.
My take is that at the beginning of the recent campaign, Tester was widely accepted as the genuine article, with Montana deep both in his heart and under his fingernails. While that reputation was diminished by the attacks of the campaign, it was still intact enough that a sizable 15 percent of the Republican leaning Montanans who voted for Trump in 2016, voted for Tester this year, when only the most loyal Republicans stuck with Rosendale whose singular appeal was his attachment to Trump, even as he continued to pronounce the name of his adopted state, “Mun-tah’-nah.”
Perhaps Trump made a race of it for Rosendale, but I have a wise friend, the most astute observer of Montana politics I know, who detected larger implications in the unprecedented presidential visits. They created greater interest in the election, with the likely result of increasing turnout in an increasingly Republican state. While not quite enough to rescue Rosendale, higher voter turnout might have been the key factor in the defeat of the I-185 and I-186, the tobacco tax and clean water ballot issues, both of which were unpopular with Republicans. A high voter turnout might have aided Republicans in other races, including stifling Democrat gains in the legislature.
Rosendale would have been the robotic supporter of a polarizing President at a time the constitutional systems of checks and balances is as vital as any time in American history. It is good that Montana’s legislative delegation, as in the 1970s, is not entirely made up of the same party.
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.