HELENA — In the wake of historic losses in Montana’s 2020 election, state Democrats are hoping to bounce back, as the 2022 campaign season officially begins Thursday – but some acknowledge it may be a long, uphill climb.
“I’m not sure they can right the ship in 2022,” says David Parker, chair of Montana State University’s political science department. “I mean, it’s a mid-term election, and mid-terms do bad things for the party in power nationally. I’m not even sure that it’s a 2024 fix; it could be as far as 2026 or 2028. So that’s why they have to play the long game.”
The “long game,” in the eyes of Parker and others, is creating more organizing and presence on the ground, year-round, in communities and counties where Democrats have been losing ground – or, just losing, and badly, such as most rural areas.
In 2020, all statewide Democratic candidates on the ballot in Montana lost decisively – a sweep that hasn’t happened here in more than five decades. They also lost every rural county – except some with Indian reservations – and claimed victory in only a few urban counties, such as Missoula, Butte (Silver Bow County) and Bozeman (Gallatin County).
“In rural counties, we have to get over this idea that we’re not going to win, so we don’t need to show up there,” says Zach Brown, a Democrat who, in 2020, won a formerly Republican county commission seat in Gallatin County. “We have to go talk to those communities and be present and demonstrate that we’re different than the national party.”
Brown also says Democrats must stop focusing on what he calls “identity politics” – appealing to specific groups and their grievances – and make their pitch based on broad-based economic issues.
“It’s not a popular thing to say within my party, but I think it’s true,” he told MTN News.
Candidate filing in Montana for 2022 starts Thursday. It’s a light election year, with the only big partisan races the contests for Montana’s two new congressional districts.
U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican, is heavily favored in the new eastern Montana district, or District 2, and Republican Ryan Zinke, a former congressman and U.S. Interior secretary, is probably the person to beat in western Montana’s open District 1 – although several Democrats and other candidates are running for it.
Democrats believe they can make District 1 competitive and perhaps pick up some seats in the state Legislature, where they’ve been in the minority since 2011.
Yet the Democratic Party currently has no central committee – often a key local organizing body – in 21 of Montana’s 56 counties, most of which are rural.
Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan, who took over the job last fall, says the party is working to develop committees in some of those areas, or perhaps expand the central committee in neighboring counties.
She says party board members and staffers did tour the state last summer and fall, to speak with voters and Democrats in rural areas. Hogan says they found plenty of enthusiasm to start reversing the party’s fortunes in a state long seen as a “purple” outlier in the West, where Republicans and Democrats battled for control – as opposed to the sea of Republican red that engulfs neighboring states like Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
“In Glendive, there were 60 people at an event,” she says of the far-eastern Montana community. “I talk to voters every day. People are energized and they’re ready to go.”
The climb back, however, will be steep for Montana Democrats. Republicans now hold a 67-33 edge in the Montana House and a 31-19 advantage in the Senate, and hold all but one statewide office.
In 2020, Republicans won the governorship, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state and U.S. House seat – all of which were open seats – and won re-election to the U.S. Senate and state superintendent of public schools. They also control all five seats on the state Public Service Commission.
The only remaining statewide Democratic official is U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who won re-election in a hard-fought race in 2018.
Tester says the COVID-19 pandemic hurt Montana Democrats in 2020, because candidates didn’t get out and talk to voters, in person, as much as they should – or, at all.
“You need to talk to folks face-to-face about what you see is the vision for the state of Montana, but, maybe most importantly, you need to listen – and listen to what their concerns are and react to their concerns,” he says.
Tester also believes Democrats will have some successes to talk about, such as the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to state water, sewer, road and broadband projects, and the American Rescue Plan Act, which did the same, and also funded scores of other programs to help Montana recover from the pandemic.
Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s Democratic governor from 2005-2012, says Democrats need to go on the offensive and let voters know about policies passed by Republicans that believes aren’t popular – like granting big tax breaks that benefit private-school students or setting aside thousands of out-of-state hunting licenses for private outfitter clients.
Still, most observers and people involved in politics say Montana Democrats must revitalize their local organizations – and not just centered around election time.
Kiersten Iwai, executive director of Forward Montana, a group that registers young people to vote and otherwise encourages them in civic engagement, says any political organization needs people on the ground year-round.
“We’re there to make sure people are thinking about these issues all the time and connecting the dots, so (they can see) that this law that was just passed is a result of an election,” she says. “That year-round infrastructure is so important.”
Democrats can engage younger voters on issues like affordable housing, fighting climate change and health care, Iwai says – and, notes that a recent report said that conservatives have been putting more money into youth development, than have progressives.
Brown says Cascade County and Great Falls also must be a priority, for regaining ground – a former Democratic stronghold where every Democratic statewide candidate and every Democratic legislative candidate lost in 2020.
“If we don’t figure out how to compete in Cascade County, I don’t know if we ever win statewide again,” he says.
Parker, the MSU political scientist, says Democrats have been supporting policies that help rural Montana, such as Medicaid expansion or infrastructure projects. But if they don’t have any organization in rural areas, that story can’t get told on a consistent basis, he says.
He told of a student from Choteau, who mentioned that the local Republican Party was giving awards in ag competitions, and other local events – but that the Democratic Party was nowhere to be seen.
“That’s my point,” Parker says. “The Democrats have to be part of the social organization of these places and not just showing up three months before elections with a bunch of college kids knocking doors,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of effort over the next few years to be present in those rural places.”
He notes that as recently as 2012, Democrats held most of the statewide seats in Montana. Yet if they don’t have a statewide strategy, they risk the state becoming one dominated by Republicans for many years to come, Parker says.
“If the Democrats think the only strategy is basically to hang out in urban areas and run up the numbers there, then, yeah, it’s going to be moving toward an Idaho or a Wyoming, because that’s not a winning strategy,” he says. “They need a 56-county strategy.”