Saturday, November 7, 2020

A new, one-sided era in Montana politics?

 Republicans won every state-wide election in Montana in 2020, and here are a few stories that shed light on what might be considered a trend.  First, High Country News published this piece in late October,  "Bullock, Daines and Montana's Growing Pains." The subhead for Abe Streep's story is, "In a critical Senate race, the two Steves lay claim to the “Montana way of life.”  Here's an excerpt in the author's voice, describing his visit to Cascade, Montana, 30 minutes from Great Falls, where Steve Daines had visited to tout improved broadband.  

I had come to gauge their reaction to this year’s battle for the state's open Senate seat: Daines, the Republican incumbent, versus Steve Bullock, the sitting Democratic governor. As one of the few races that could tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C., it has become increasingly nationalized, vicious and expensive. In such an atmosphere, any news can be sharpened into an advantage or a weapon. Montanans’ social media feeds are full of targeted micro-ads.

The outcome could threaten the state’s legacy of independent politics, where idea-based voters proudly split their tickets. Montana has not voted for a Democratic president since 1992; it has not voted for a Republican governor since 2000. This year, though, the races for governor, senator and Montana’s lone congressional seat could all go Republican, fundamentally shifting the state’s dynamic. The most closely watched contest, the Senate race, is too close to call.

Well, now we know the outcome of that election--that Daines won and he did so rather handily, though Bullock has been a popular governor and one I see as a great communicator with a common touch.

 Indeed, no Democrat won any state-wide race in Montana, making Greg Gianforte, the state's only U.S. Congressperson, the new Governor, after 8 years when Steve Bullock was the chief executive.  E. Tammy Kim published this in the New York Times, where she is a contributing opinion writer, the day after the election.  She writes from Missoula, home of the University of Montana.  The headline is "Montana’s New Governor Could Remake the State," and the subhead is "Greg Gianforte’s victory is another step in the Republicans’ ideological conquest of the American West."  That headline sums up her argument:  

This state is now red. Not the light red it used to be; not a red-and-blue checkerboard coaxing the eyes to see purple. Just a deep red.

Every statewide race in Montana went Republican this week, with record voter turnout: president, Senate, House, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor. And both houses of the state Legislature retained a Republican majority. Come 2021, for just the fourth time since 1921, Republicans will hold Montana’s house, senate and governorship.

Kim quotes Mike Dennison, chief political reporter for Montana Television Network, comparing Montana to the Dakotas and Idaho, "where Republicans rule everything and there’s no question about who’s going to be in power. ... Republicans have been increasing their strength for the last 30 to 40 years."  

Kim continues:  

The election of Greg Gianforte as governor will have the most immediate effect on Montanans. A wealthy software entrepreneur who spent $7.5 million of his own money to defeat his opponent, Mr. Gianforte is a politician in President Trump’s image. He has played down the risks of the coronavirus, derided unions and the public sector and based his policymaking on the Bible. He has also brutalized the media: In 2017, he body-slammed a reporter for The Guardian and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.

In his politics and personality, Mr. Gianforte would seem out of sync with most Montanans. He’s a deeply partisan Republican in a place that values ideological independence; he’s a brawler in a place that values niceness; and he’s an urban newcomer, a transplant from the East Coast, in a place that values rural, multigenerational roots. Montana politics was once known for producing centrist Democrats, like Senators Mike Mansfield and Max Baucus, and pragmatic Republicans like Marc Racicot, a governor who dealt plainly with Democratic legislators and recently said he would vote for Joe Biden.

As it happens, I've just finished reading Jon Tester's Grounded (2020), and I learned a lot about Montana's political history (among other topics).  I'd often heard Bullock speak, as a campaign for President and then for the Senate, about how Montana had banned dark money.  Tester describes that battle in detail in his book.  It's one that goes back more than 100 years, to a time when mining magnates--"copper kings"--sought to buy the state's Senate seats.  It's a fascinating tale.  

What I don't understand is why Montanans, who take such pride in their roots, would migrate to a newcomer --a Californian, no less--like Gianforte.  Also, I find it regrettable that so many of the newcomers have brought with them Republican politics rather than the Democratic leanings associated with the coastal elites who have been buying up the state.  

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