News & Features

Republicans Sweep the Big Sky

With the exception of the governor, GOP seizes control of all statewide offices and retains majorities in both legislative chambers

Montana Democrats have extended their legacy of control in the governor’s office to 16 years, a triumph that stands out as the lone bright spot for a party that lost all other statewide offices, while the GOP retained decisive control of the House and Senate.

The depth with which Republicans swept state offices allows them to seize control of four out of five seats on the Montana Land Board, a feat the party achieved by winning campaigns for attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, auditor, and secretary of state, while expanding their majority in the Senate and holding a 59-41 spread in the Montana House.

Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock, who won reelection against GOP candidate Greg Gianforte, serves as chairman of the Land Board and leads the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which performs the daily work on trust land leases and projects.

The Land Board’s primary constitutional duty is to generate funding for public education by leasing land for farming, ranching, mining, timber harvest, oil and gas extraction or other uses. Because the parcels checkerboard the state and often abut federal lands, the board also plays a critical role in managing public access for hunting, fishing and other recreational uses.

Clayton Elliott, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, which invested heavily in Bullock’s reelection as well as a clutch of House and Senate races, said the toppling of the land board’s political makeup isn’t an immediate concern.

“Obviously we are disappointed,” Elliott said. “But we spent a significant amount of money reelecting the governor, so certainly coming out of the election we are confident that stream and public land access is protected. I hope that the message was heard loud and clear that Montanans care deeply about access to public lands, and that the four Republican Land Board members will take that into consideration.”

Meanwhile, Republicans picked up three seats in the state Senate, increasing their majority to 32-18 and winning Democratic-held seats in Helena, Missoula, central Montana and near Billings, while losing only a single seat in south Billings.

Democrats expected to make some advances in the 100-member House this election, and they did so by picking up five seats held by Republicans. However, those inroads were offset by the party’s loss of five seats they currently hold, leaving the margin at 59-41 in favor of Republicans.

By electing Republicans to four of the state’s top offices, the party has also built a prodigious bullpen from which to draw in future election cycles, as statewide offices historically serve as an incubator for candidates seeking higher office.

“I am really pleased that we built such a strong foundation for the future success of the Montana Republican Party, and for the people of Montana, frankly,” Montana GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann said.

“We have held really strong control of the Legislature for a number of sessions now, and we have broken through the glass ceiling in terms of the Land Board, and now we are occupying four of the five seats,” Essmann continued. “I have been fulfilled on that. With only two top Democrats remaining, Sen. Tester and Gov. Bullock, and with an open race in 2020, I hope that by the end of that cycle we will have all the elected statewide seats in Republican control.”

According to Rob Saldin, who teaches political science at the University of Montana, the near sweep is a positive sign for the future of the Republican Party in Montana, and an ominous one for Democrats.

“It sets the Republican Party up so nicely, because the second-tier statewide races, those are all Republican now and that is where you often look to find your talent for running for governor and running for Congress, and the Republicans now have a number of people in those positions and the democrats have none,” Saldin said. “It is a great sign for the short to mid-term future of the republican party in Montana, and an unnerving sign if you’re a Democrat, because you have seen your crop of rising stars wiped out.”

Still, in light of Republican president-elect Donald Trump’s win, and given the history of midterm elections favoring an opposing party, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the state’s lone Democrat serving on the Congressional delegation who is up for re-election in 2018, may be in a stronger position to mount a successful campaign, he said.

“For Democrats, that really is the silver lining,” Saldin said. “When you look at the history of how midterm elections play out, with a few notable exceptions, they are very rough on the party that controls the White House. We saw it with Obama in 2010 and 2014, and we saw it in Bush’s second term. Those were huge pendulum swings, and frequently there is a backlash against the sitting president at that point. So if Clinton had been elected, history would suggest that it would have been an extremely daunting environment for Sen. Tester, but now obviously that is different because so much of the nation’s attention is going to be focused on the Republican president.”

U.S. House Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Whitefish, also rolled to reelection, handily strolling to a second term and holding firm with a 57 percent to 39 percent lead, edging out his Democratic opponent, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

And while Trump’s upset victory serves as a sort of clarion call by an American public seeking leadership by political outsiders, Bullock’s reelection should give statewide Democrats hope, Saldin said.

“Given the margins in the presidential and U.S. House race, it’s amazing to me that Bullock managed to pull out a win,” Saldin said. “And he didn’t just hang on, he actually performed better than he did four years ago.”