On Nov. 3, Montana voters turned out in record numbers and defied their ticket-splitting tendencies, delivering a wave of Republican dominance so staggering that Democrats will be recalibrating the party’s message for years to come.
Three days after the Republican rout, as official vote counts were still being tallied, Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte lifted the curtain on a new website advertising a dozen openings for leadership jobs at every level of state government, intimating the monumental changes awaiting Montana.
For Montana’s lone Congressman — soon to be the first Republican to occupy the state’s top executive seat in 16 years — it was the equivalent of hanging a “Help Wanted” sign outside the Capitol, an open casting call for a fresh slate of candidates to lead agencies like the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Labor, Industry, Environmental Quality, Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, and more.
Announced by Gianforte’s newly minted transition team, who did not make him available for an interview prior to the Beacon’s print deadline, the website, called servemontana.com, signified the governor-elect’s intent to make good on his pledge to clean house and overhaul local government — a move voters seemed to endorse wholeheartedly when they filled out their ballots, inking wins for Gianforte in the open governor’s seat against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney before continuing on down the Republican column.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines defeated popular Democratic challenger Gov. Steve Bullock in a Senate race that broke spending records and garnered national attention. Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale seized the open U.S. House seat by overcoming Democrat Kathleen Williams, a former Bozeman legislator who conceded defeat in her second attempt at becoming the first Democrat to occupy the at-large congressional district since Pat Williams’ nine-term streak ended in 1994, and the first woman to do so in more than a century.
Races for the attorney general, secretary of state, and superintendent of public instruction offices also fell to Republicans, while the GOP picked up seats in both houses of the state Legislature, where it already held firm majorities.
For Republicans, it was a resounding victory, which party leaders are already interpreting as a directive from voters heading into the upcoming legislative session in January.
“Folks, tonight you sent a loud message to Helena, a message to the state capital from every corner of this great state,” Gianforte told supporters on Election Night, when he ended a hard-fought bid for governor that began in 2016, when he lost to Gov. Steve Bullock. “That after 16 long years of single-party rule in the governor’s office, it’s time for Helena to change the way they do business.”
When the dust settled, there were 608,934 votes tallied, which is the most people ever to vote in a Montana election, breaking the previous record set in 2016 by more than 91,000 votes. Voter turnout surpassed 80%.
With Gianforte having flipped the governor’s mansion for the first time in 16 years while beating his opponent by 12.8 percentage points, Republicans will hold unified control over the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, giving the party wide political latitude and painting Montana with a bright red brush that erased the nuanced political dynamic that has defined the Treasure State for a generation.
“Winning with the largest margin of victory for a first-term governor in 100 years, Governor-elect Gianforte earned a historic mandate from the people of Montana to implement his clear vision for our state,” said Don “K” Kaltschmidt, a Flathead Valley business owner and the chairman of the Montana Republican Party.
Like Kaltschmidt, many Republican party leaders viewed last week’s election results as a decree to carry out the priorities they campaigned on, while others see an opportunity to finally animate a legislative agenda that the specter of a Democratic veto pen has rendered moot since former Republican Gov. Judy Martz left office in 2004.
Under four terms of Democratic gubernatorial rule, Montana’s Republican party has fractured, with its political division widening as conservative party members clash with more moderate Republicans, who have worked with Democrats during recent legislative sessions to broker deals on Medicaid expansion, education spending and campaign finance.
In Kalispell’s House District 7, Republican incumbent Frank Garner easily survived a primary challenge by Jerry O’Neil, a far-right conservative, before trouncing his Democratic opponent in the general election by 33 points.
Entering his fourth term, Garner, the former Kalispell police chief, has become a reliable member of Montana’s moderate Solutions Caucus, having carried legislation to combat “dark money” in politics and introduced a gas tax, while supporting a compromise bill on Medicaid reform that aligned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle with Bullock, who couldn’t run again because of term limits.
Garner has become familiar with his party’s infighting, which he hopes will be subdued when the Montana Legislature convenes in January under a Republican governor.
“My hope is that, now that we’re done with a difficult and divisive election season, we can come together and agree on as much as we can for the benefit of the state,” Garner said. “We’ve got to transition away from fighting among ourselves and move toward crafting solutions to the problems we all face.”
Garner said his allegiance lies in representing his district, not subscribing to a particular ideology. Still, he predicted a renewed boldness as GOP legislators look to capitalize on their victories, and perhaps less pressure on him to cross party lines to broker deals on major legislation.
“I think everyone’s legislating is going to change,” Garner said. “We’re going to have a new administration, a lot of new people in charge of state agencies, the governor’s budget is going to look significantly different than it has before, both because of the political shift and the coronavirus. There’s going to be a different person with a veto pen at the end of the line, and a different person fashioning a budget.”
“With that said, I don’t think we’re going to see a Republican free-for-all,” Garner added.
Prior to the general election, Republican representatives from the party’s conservative flank began circulating a draft agenda of legislative priorities for the 2021 session. The agenda wasn’t shy about raising legislation that Democratic governors had vetoed, including several anti-abortion measures and a new attempt at funneling some public education spending to private schools.
For panic-stricken Democrats, those legislative wish-list items don’t merely represent an ideological threat to their values and those of their constituents, but a very real possibility under a Gianforte governorship.
“I think for me and for my constituents, that’s going to have the most significant impact, whether it’s Gianforte’s ideas on tax policy or social issues,” said Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, who enters his third term in the Montana Legislature as the only Democrat to win a seat in Flathead County. “I guess I can only hope that there’s some alignment of the majority and that our conservative wing shows some restraint.”
According to Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Bozeman, who served as Senate majority leader last session, the 2021 session will present an abundance of opportunities for conservative lawmakers to pass legislation that has stalled for years. And while he urged lawmakers to act deliberately, cautioning against interpreting the election results as gaining permission to enact pet legislation carte blanche, he said the election of a Republican governor in Montana signals a new era.
“After 16 years of Democrat rule in Helena, we rank near the bottom of the country for our average income,” Thomas said. “We need a comeback. We need someone with new ideas, who is ready to take on the challenges we will face in a post-COVID world, not someone who is satisfied with the status quo.”
As the next governor of Montana, Gianforte promises to be anything but the “status quo.” As the wealthiest member of Congress, Gianforte’s entrée to state governance represents a dramatic departure in Montana politics, not just from the past 16 years of “Democratic rule” but a transformation of the Republican Party whose recent exiles include two of its former archetypes — former Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown, who severed ties with the state GOP and denounced Donald Trump, and former Gov. Marc Racicot, who announced he wouldn’t vote for the incumbent president.
“For over 70 years, I’ve considered myself a Republican. But after watching Trump’s consistently ignorant and irresponsible leadership, I’ve concluded that in good conscience, I can’t remain a member of the party he has taken over,” Brown wrote in a widely published editorial leading up to the election. “I won’t vote for him, nor will I vote for his puppets, Greg Gianforte and Steve Daines, who know up-close and personal what a scoundrel he is and should certainly show the courage to stand up to him. They never have. I am declaring my independence from them and their Republican Party.”
A large part of the Montana GOP’s allegiance to Trump was born of political strategy, and with the president’s defeat, and Gianforte’s crossover from federal to state elected office, he’s expected to seize the opportunity to finally define himself.
Gianforte’s career in the tech industry began in New Jersey, before he moved to Bozeman in 1995 and founded RightNow technologies, a company that was eventually sold to Oracle for nearly $2 billion.
A devout Christian who subscribes to creationist views, Gianforte has donated millions of dollars through the Gianforte Family Foundation to various organizations, including some that oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, and some that promote school choice.
It remains to be seen whether a majority of lawmakers will elevate those ideological values this session, or if they’ll be subdued by Democrats working across party lines with moderates to craft a budget during unprecedented times. But it is clear that Republicans have plenty to celebrate.
According to uncertified vote counts from the Montana Secretary of State’s office, Republicans picked up nine legislative seats in the Montana House and one in the Montana Senate — enough to expand their majorities to 67 of 100 House seats and 31 of 50 Senate seats. Going into the 2021 session, the Republican majority in the House will be sufficient to override a governor’s veto or to pass measures that require a two-thirds majority without winning Democratic votes.
For Garner, who has endured criticism from within his own party’s ranks and from out-of-state spending groups for his refusal to sign a blanket pledge opposing Medicaid expansion in Montana, the forthcoming changes to his home state’s political makeup doesn’t color his own political constitution.
“We never look like one vision or one personality,” Garner said of the state’s citizen legislature. “That is why they send 150 of us to Helena. We are supposed to have differences, and it’s our job to come to an understanding of how to manage those differences. There’s no doubt we’re heading into a tough session. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, a majority of the statewide officeholders are new, we have a new administration. But we are elected in November and we start voting the first week of January, so we have to be ready to go.”
“Our focus has got to be on governing. And those differences have got to be in our rearview mirror,” he added. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work. And that will be my absolute focus.”
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