Opinion

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Like I Was Saying

House District Predictions

The Western District could have a lot of competing interests that could swing either way during any given election year

The results of the U.S. Census will be released at the tail end of this year, at the earliest, and only then will we know for sure whether Montana has gained another representative in the U.S. House. If I were to bet on the outcome, however, I would wager that we add another seat.

That, of course, would mean in 2022 there will be two separate congressional races: one between Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, assuming he runs for reelection, and whoever ends up challenging him; and another for an open seat. The question is who will represent which part of the state.

If the recent election taught us anything, it’s that we’re more polarized than ever and, thus, trending red since fewer Montanans are splitting their tickets. Based on the Nov. 3 results, I would surmise that one of the U.S. House seats is safely Republican and the other will be drawn as more of a tossup and chosen as the open seat in 2022.

Earlier this year, as an exercise, I guessed how the state’s five-member District and Apportionment Commission might cut the state into two districts, imagining the line will follow the Continental Divide and largely reflect the old districts before we were reduced to one at-large seat in 1992.

Since the former Western District has grown faster, the Eastern District would need a few more counties to balance out the population discrepancy. I presented a few scenarios, but the one I think makes the most sense is giving the reborn Eastern District Broadwater, Lewis and Clark, Park and Glacier counties. The population of those four combined is about 100,000 people.

According to Census figures, Montana had roughly 1.06 million residents in 2019. This updated map would place about 530,000 of them in each district without looking like a complete gerrymandered mess. Based on this new line, who would win and by how much? Let’s dig into the 2020 race between Rosendale and Democrat Kathleen Williams with the caveat that we’re unlikely to see such high turnout in a non-mail election.

If Rosendale ends up defending the Eastern District, he has a relatively easy path to reelection. Of the 41 counties, most of them rural, Williams won five and only one (Lewis and Clark) that does not include an American Indian reservation. Combined, Rosendale would have bested Williams by 60,000 votes, or 60-40, instead of his statewide margin of 56-44. In other words, this would be a Republican stronghold anchored by Yellowstone County, the state’s most populous county and home to Billings.

That leaves 15 counties in the Western District. Just four of those counties voted for Williams in 2020 — Gallatin, Missoula, Silver Bow and Deer Lodge — but taken together the district on this side of the divide would be far more competitive.

If Rosendale had run against Williams in this district he would have edged her by a margin of just 53-47. This seat could be coined a “tossup” for the foreseeable future. It would feature two of the state’s most conservative population centers, Flathead and Ravalli, along with two reliably blue college towns, Missoula and Bozeman, and the union epicenter of Butte.

That’s a lot of competing interests that could swing either way during any given election year.