Like I Was Saying

A Local Red Wave

A two-thirds supermajority of the state Legislature is now GOP, which combined with a governor from the same party can basically pass whatever it wants with few guardrails

By Kellyn Brown

While much of the national narrative following the recent midterm elections revolved around the Democrats’ ability to fend off a red wave and potentially secure control of at least one chamber of Congress, Montana’s results were more predictable. And they mostly benefited Republicans. Mostly. 

A two-thirds supermajority of the state Legislature is now GOP, which combined with a governor from the same party can basically pass whatever it wants with few guardrails. In other words, whatever little power Democrats had in Helena before is now unequivocally gone. 

Locally, as expected, every legislative office except for one was won by a Republican (Whitefish remains the lone liberal island in a sea of red). Turnout in Flathead County was well below the 2018 midterms when nearly 70% of voters cast a ballot. This year, that number was just below 60%. In fact, fewer ballots were cast this year even though the number of registered voters increased by 10,000 people over the last four years. To our credit, percentagewise, statewide voter turnout was down about the same.

None of the local races were particularly close. In House District 3, which covers Columbia Falls, the Canyon and North Fork area and was once somewhat of a swing district, incumbent Republican Braxton Mitchell won 58%-42%. Meanwhile, in HD 5, which covers Whitefish and is, again, the last Democratic stronghold in Northwest Montana, incumbent Dave Fern easily retained his seat against his GOP challenger 61%-39%.

Voters here can be credited with sending Ryan Zinke back to Congress. The Whitefish native who served as former President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary trailed by thousands of votes when the initial results from the newly created Western House District began trickling in. But that was before the Flathead reported. While Zinke’s overall margin of victory over Monica Tranel in the race was just 8,000 votes, he won our county by more than 12,000 votes. 

The lopsided tally, combined with his dominance in more rural areas, was enough for Zinke to overcome deficits in the district’s two college towns. He lost Missoula County by more than 16,000 votes and Gallatin by about 6,000. The new U.S. House seat, despite some criticism of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, appears to be a competitive one. 

Meanwhile, two statewide contests show the state still has an independent streak, even if it’s smaller than a decade ago when ticket splitting was far more common. The Republican all-hands-on-deck effort to, for the first time, politicize a nonpartisan Montana Supreme Court race failed miserably. 

The number of mailers, commercials and notes from the governor fawning over candidate James Brown’s conservative credentials was unprecedented. The high court, after all, is really the only thing left between the party and total power. Incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson was comfortably reelected.

Then there was a legislative referendum dubbed the “born alive” bill, which supporters say was meant to prevent the killing of infants outside the womb in the rare occurrence of a failed abortion. Health care professionals opposed the measure and the proposal, which failed 47% to 53%, certainly looked like a dry run to gauge support for eventual legislation that would ban abortions in Montana. And with supermajorities in both chambers, Republicans now have the numbers to propose as many amendments to the state constitution as they wish – a constitution many of them have openly criticized in the past. 

The 2024 general election ballot may be a long one.