Closing Range

Purplemandering Montana

How might the state be “reapportioned” into two Montana-representative House districts?

By Dave Skinner

Finally! Montana will have two Congresscritters again!

Two will be better than just one of 435, especially if our two Congresscritters actually team up on federal issues important to Montana — our current U.S. senators aren’t playing well together these days.

So, how might Montana be “reapportioned” into two Montana-representative House districts?

The “conventional wisdom” is an east/west split again, a squiggle from Cut Bank down to Gardiner, with Helena, Butte, Great Falls and Bozeman on either side of that squiggle.

Pat Williams, western Montana’s last Congressman (D), told the Associated Press there’s an “obvious separation of interest between eastern and western Montana.” Well, Mr. Williams is right about “separation,” but today, such “separation” is completely different.

One of many profound changes since 1990: Western Montana was much more unionized and Democratic when Williams was still in office. Ironically enough, it was the agenda of Williams’ party, implemented by President Bill Clinton’s administration, that devastated western Montana’s private-sector union manufacturing jobs (turning many working-class Democrats into working-class Republicans).

There are many other factors, of course, but “red/blue” voting patterns in Montana today resemble national patterns. All around America, urban and ethnic Democratic vote clusters lay encircled by Republican regions. Montana maps out similarly, with Democratic-majority polities concentrated in certain collegiate and/or bureaucratic cities and Indian reservations, floating in a vast Republican-majority sea. Congressman Williams’ “separation of interest” is no longer east/west. More honestly, it’s rural/urban.

So, what should the new House districts look like? There are plenty of ideas. For example, in 2018 the New York Times editorial board sanctioned a more “democratic” (small-d) Congress using “Auto-Redistrict” software to create 593 U.S. House seats — with the additional districts mostly urban and (big-D) Democrat “leaning,” no surprise. The Times followed criteria for even population, contiguity, compactness, with minimal minority “wasted votes.”

The resulting “western” district would join Missoula and Great Falls with Kalispell — jamming plenty of “separation of interest” into the district, the opposite of Representative Williams’ rationale.

Others more-narrowly focusing on Montana in search of a “competitive” second seat have apparently coalesced around southwestern Montana: 13 contiguous counties comprising Lake, Missoula, Powell, Lewis and Clark, Cascade, plus everything south.

For now, I’ll focus on two mapmakers, some Twitter guy and an actual Montana Democrat, Flathead County’s very own James Conner, who produced identical maps. James’ version, the “Big Sky Purplemander” (a sly and brutally honest swipe at electoral gerrymandering), is posted on his Flathead Memo website.

Both the Twitter guy and Mr. Conner explain why they drew the Purplemander. The Twitter guy notes that Purplemander voters favored U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D) over challenger Matt Rosendale (R) by 17% in 2018, after Trump won by 7 points in 2016. Conner points out these same counties have posted vote “pluralities” won at times by Democrats Steve Bullock, Tester, and Kathleen Williams. 

Could a Purplemander happen? Conner muses such a thing is “not just bar talk among Democratic operatives. It’s a real possibility.”

Um, how about what Montana voters might want? For darn good reasons, they elected 2020’s stomping-Republican-majority Legislature from legislative districts that, despite the worst efforts of a select, hyperpartisan few, are actually pretty fairly mapped out, with minimal gerrymandering. 

Montana picked a Republican governor, and filled every contested statewide office with a Republican in 2020, including U.S. Senate and House, all elected “at large,” where redistricting can’t be applied — but community of interest, not separation, absolutely did apply.

As for national office? Sure, it’s possible to “purplemander” a new, “competitive” House district, but Montana needs representative, not competitive, districts.

On the federal level, rural America, Montana included, needs to show a united front against urban America, specifically an urban America that elects politicians intent on trashing the Electoral College first, and later, changing the Constitution so that smaller states would no longer have equal standing in the U.S. Senate.

Therefore, to reflect and represent Montana’s current, and very real, community of interest, I suggest a Skinnermander, squiggling along county lines across Montana, from Idaho to the Dakotas, could create districts of equal population and shared interest.

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