Closing Range

Ugly Reapportionment May Not Matter Much

Out of nine proposals, the Republicans proposed four rectangles, but the Democrats proposed five Rorschach blots

By DAVE SKINNER

Last week I went to Helena to watch, and testify before, the Montana Reapportionment Commission regarding how Montana’s two U.S. House districts will be drawn out. Because Montana is pretty much a square state, it shouldn’t be too hard to scribble a fairly straight dividing line and get two kinda-rectangles as a result, eh? Boy, was I wrong. 

Out of nine proposals (all disappointing), the Republicans proposed four rectangles, but the Democrats proposed five Rorschach blots. Two are so convoluted, they actually look like little “cookie monsters” wanting to snarf the rest of big, tasty Montana.

As I write, I don’t know which one will “win,” only that the uglier this first congressional “winner,” the uglier we can expect legislative reapportionment to be. Should we care, no matter how dysfunctional? Well, that’s complicated.

I moved back to Montana from Colorado early in 2000. That November, Judy Martz of Butte was elected governor 51 to 47, and our 2001 House was 58 R-42 D; 2001 Senate 31 R-19 D, following a pattern of solid GOP 1990’s working majorities first created by the watershed 1994 “Bill Clinton blowout” at the national level.

But that all changed pretty quickly, and not to my liking. For one thing, Constitutional Initiative CI-64 (passed in 1992) imposed an eight-years-in-any-16-years term limit on state offices (but not federal, basically, eight years and up, or out. It took effect in 2000, generating a lot of “churn” as long-held incumbent thrones became open seats and the GOP edge shrank.

The 2000 reapportionment (honestly, a Democratic masterwork) took effect a little later, in 2004’s election, and the apparent result was that Montana’s 2005, ‘07 and ‘09 Houses were essentially 50-50. In 2007 and 2009, Democrats carried a Senate majority, its first since, yep, the Clinton backlash.

Thing is, politics is full of confounding factors. One is a coattail effect from the top down. In the 2000s, Republicans were lamely led by George W. Bush, who even more unfortunately appointed a lot of lame people.

By contrast, Montana Democrats were led by Brian Schweitzer, who’d run hard for U.S. Senate in 2000, losing 51-47 to Conrad Burns. But he came roaring back into the arena and won the open governor race by 50-47 in 2004. So did his party. 

Well, along came Barack Obamacare and the Tea Party. Kaboom! In 2010, Montana elected 68 House Rs against 32 Ds, 28 Senate Rs versus 22 Ds, despite the gerrymandered 2000 districting still being in force.

After 2014’s election and acrimonious redistricting that annoyed both sides, Democrats gained a couple of House seats and broke even Senate-wise. Then party head counts (and a GOP advantage) stayed much the same from 2015 to 2019.

2020 was another kaboom for Democrats, of course, leaving Montana Republicans just a couple bodies shy of record legislative majorities, just one corpulent body away from of holding all statewide elected offices.

Could that change? Sure, but not through redistricting. No district, no matter how creatively gerrymandered to be “competitive,” can be so if candidates don’t offer competitive ideas about issues that matter to voters. Democrats are losing elections in Montana, not because the maps are wrong, but because, to more and more Montanans, Democratic policies don’t compete.

Let’s take our noses away up from the maps and consider just one issue that can’t be drawn away: The Democratic Party’s institutionalized scorched-earth hostility against economic forms of not just public, but private land use, too-often rationalized as “environmental protection.”

Thirty-plus years of betrayal later, after massive declines in forestry and minerals production, with little chance of value-added manufacturing of what remains, members of western Montana’s once-dominant cadre of private-sector unionized, family-wage workers, staunchly-loyal, multi-generational Democrats, are either gone, or angrily Republican. Oops.

Makes you mad enough to want another gun, doesn’t it? Oops there, too.

So while I’m annoyed at how the redistricting circus is playing out, it seems that redistricting, complicated or not, matters mostly on the margins, if ever. But policy, honestly created and present, inevitably determines the winners on Election Day. Hopefully, that’s us.

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