‘We Might Just Vote for Tester Out of Spite’

Senate Bill 566 would eliminate third-party candidates from the 2024 Montana U.S. Senate election, a strategy many say is designed to help Republicans win. Libertarians say the plan might backfire.

By Denali Sagner
Sid Daoud, a member of the Kalispell City Council and chair of the Montana Libertarian Party, speaks at a candidate forum in Kalispell on Sept. 20, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“This is a concerted effort by just a couple folks to kill the Libertarian Party,” Sid Daoud, chair of the Montana Libertarian Party and a Kalispell City Council member, told the Beacon, speaking about the latest election-related bill moving through the Montana Legislature.

The Montana House State Administration Committee on Friday will hear testimony on Senate Bill 566, a proposal by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, that would reshape the 2024 U.S. Senate race in Montana, creating a top-two primary in which third-party candidates have almost zero chance of advancing to the general election. The bill would apply exclusively to the upcoming U.S. Senate race, would not impact any other statewide elections and would sunset after 2024. The proposal has drawn criticism from Democrats, moderate Republicans and Libertarians, who say the bill is an attempt to thwart the possible reelection of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, by funneling Libertarian votes to the Republican candidate and to legislate third-party contenders out of Montana politics.

Daoud has led a chorus of opposition to the implementation of a top-two primary, an election system he said would stifle the voices of Montana Libertarians in what he predicts will be a failed attempt to oust Tester from the Senate next November.

Pundits have deemed the race for Tester’s seat to be one of the most consequential, and likely closest, Senate races in 2024. Democrats currently hold the Senate with a slim three-member majority margin, one that could easily be lost should Tester and his colleagues in other competitive states lose to Republicans. The University of Virginia Center for Politics has called the race one of three toss-up races in the Senate, alongside bids for reelection by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, and Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Despite the state’s largely purple past, a rightward trend in Montana has left Tester the only Democratic member of Montana’s Congressional delegation. Democrats in Montana have charged Republicans with attempting to tamper with the singular Senate race to oust Tester through Senate Bill 566, which they have described as a brazen attack on the state’s democratic systems.

In a joint op-ed earlier this month authored by Daoud, former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, and 2022 independent candidate for Montana’s Eastern U.S. House District Gary Buchanan, the trio charged that the objective of Senate Bill 566 is “to disenfranchise the Libertarian Party candidate with the hope that it benefits the Republican Party candidate, and thereby simultaneously increases the odds of defeating the Democratic candidate” in the upcoming Senate race.

“Such a scheme doesn’t come even remotely close to meeting the expectations of good faith and fair play embodied in the election law of Montana,” the three politicians wrote.

Republicans, however, have framed the bill as a way to streamline the democratic process and model a new, and possibly more effective, election system.

“If there’s going to be a senator who’s going to represent us for the next six years, they should have more than a majority,” Hertz told the Beacon.

Hertz said that he looked into introducing a number of bills that would reshape the state’s elections — such as implementing runoff elections or proposing constitutional amendments to the state’s voting laws — and settled on introducing the top-two primary.

He denied that the bill was proposed simply to thwart Tester, and said if had he introduced a run-off election, “they would have had the same concerns.”

“The bill also sunsets in 2025, which I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on,” Hertz added. “I thought focusing on one election would be less confusing, and this is an election that the individual will be elected for six years. Its an important choice that Montanans make.”

Montanans will also vote for governor, two U.S. representatives and numerous state officials in 2024.

Hertz said that he chose to sunset the bill in 2025 so that the Montana Legislature, when it meets again, can evaluate the election procedure, and choose whether or not to persist with the top-two primary system.

Though the bill is now moving into its second chamber for consideration, it has passed on slim margins, with numerous Republicans voting against it, both in committee and on the Senate floor. The Senate State Administration in March voted to table the bill on an 8-2 vote, effectively killing it, until it was taken off table in committee and passed 6-4. The bill passed second and third readings on the Senate floor 27-23, with seven Republicans joining Democrats to vote it down.

Libertarians have long been charged with siphoning off Republican votes in tight elections, as many Americans assume that the small-government, pro-free-market voters would support the GOP if no Libertarian was on the ballot.

According to Daoud, however, this prediction is an oversimplification of the voting bloc. Daoud said that many Libertarian voters would be most likely to skip out on elections entirely if forced to choose between a Democrat or a Republican.

“Libertarians are interesting because they don’t listen to me, they don’t listen to anybody,” he said. “I refute that all our votes would go to a conservative if we weren’t on the ballot.”

A recent analysis by polling website FiveThirtyEight argued that, given historic patterns of Montana voters, Tester would have likely still won his last three Senate campaigns even if a Libertarian candidate had not run, a model that debunks certain theories about the purported advantages of Senate Bill 566 for the Montana GOP.

“I don’t see an avenue for the Republicans to actually beat Tester,” Daoud said, citing Tester’s unusually high approval rating — 60% as of Jan 2023 — and noting that not all Libertarians would default to Tester’s opponent if given the choice between Tester and a Republican on the ballot.

“If indeed this Republican faction pisses off Libertarians enough, we might just vote for Tester out of spite,” Daoud said.

The House State Administration Committee will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. on Friday. More information on the 68th Legislature can be found at www.leg.mt.gov