Democrats Survey the Wreckage in Montana

The northern mountain states are generally inhospitable to Democrats, but Montana is something of an exception.

The northern mountain states are generally inhospitable to Democrats, but Montana is something of an exception. Barack Obama came within a few points of winning the state in 2008, and Bill Clinton actually did win it in 1992. What’s more, all five officials elected statewide are Democrats. All of which makes this year’s Republican landslide in the Montana legislature that much more surprising. 

Going into Election Day, the state House was split 50-50 while Republicans maintained a small edge in the state Senate. This January, Republicans will control the House with a 67 to 33 seat majority and the Senate with a slightly increased margin of 28 to 22 members. Just one illustration of the magnitude of the GOP victory: Republican Representative-elect Kris Hansen won by nearly two-to-one in a district her party hadn’t held for over a decade. “It was a complete turnaround,” she says.

For the last four decades, Montana’s legislature has alternated between Republican and Democratic control, with the two parties each holding the state House and Senate for roughly the same number of sessions. This year’s results represent the largest net legislative seat gain by a single party in 50 years and will most likely mark the end of this electoral seesawing.

For Democrats in the Big Sky state, the losses were devastating. William Hammerquist, a Democrat who ran for an open seat in the 4th House district, which includes the northwest Montana town of Whitefish and some surrounding areas, argues that the causes of a loss this large are myriad. One important factor he singles out is that in 2010—as is the case once every six years—no statewide officials were up for election. The lack of Democratic coattails from popular statewide candidates, he argues, contributed significantly to Montana’s Republican gains.

Pam Ellis, a Democrat who challenged James Knox, the incumbent Republican representative in the 47th House district, attributes her loss to the depressed turnout among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Ellis says that most people she talked to just weren’t open to voting for a Democrat this year. “I had people that knew my opponent, disliked him and said they would vote for him anyway,” she recalls, exasperated.

One bright spot for Democrats was the state Senate race in the 25th District, where two-term state representative Kendall Van Dyk managed to unseat an incumbent—Republican state Senator and former gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown. (Van Dyk, however, won by the slimmest of margins—just four votes out of over 6,000 cast.) Van Dyk’s high-profile opponent helped him raise significant funds from both in-state and out-of-state donors as well as to gain the support of relatively popular current Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, who defeated Brown in 2008. Van Dyk attributes his success to localizing the race, defining his opponent early and turning his election onto a referendum on Brown. “By the time the Montana Republican Party tried to paint me in the corner of the Nancy Pelosis of the world and other national Democrats, we had already established the tone,” Van Dyk says.

Although Brown is enthusiastic about Republican gains this year, he is understandably frustrated to be the only Republican incumbent in the state legislature to be defeated. “One of the reasons that the Republicans did so well this year was that there was so much focus on my race,” Brown says. He says that there was nearly $250,000 spent in his Senate race alone, which is much higher than the average amount spent on state Senate race.. “The four votes they beat me by cost [the Democrats] about $62,000 per vote,” he jokes.

Not all Democrats agree that there was a shortage of funds to go around. In Hammerquist’s race alone, he and his opponent, Derek Skees, spent about $40,000 combined on a district composed of approximately 6,000 registered voters. Hammerquist says that the problem was not an inability to broadcast his message, but the fact that voters didn’t buy the message. In his race, he suggests, there may have even been some oversaturation. “In the final month of the campaign, there were at least 20-plus pieces of direct mail [per voter],” he says.

If the dynamics of 2010 hold in 2012, it is clear that Montana will not be the battleground it was in 2008, when Obama visited the state three times and had an outside chance at winning there. Senator Jon Tester is up for reelection in 2012 - Tester is a prime target in Republican hopes to win control of the US Senate. Hammerquist believes that, in order to hold his seat, Tester will need particularly strong turnout from the Democratic base as well as the new voters that came out in 2008. “If he loses his base, it will be tough to win Montana in two years, that’s for sure,” Hammerquist says.

Correction: A conscientious reader and member of the political science department at Montana State University relates that Gov. Schweitzer is term limited and will not run for reelection in 2012. Former Congressman Rick Hill has announced that he will run for the governor’s seat in Montana in 2012 as a Republican. Also, Steve Daines, a Republican and local entrepreneur, has announced he will challenge Sen. Tester in 2012.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at

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