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Montana’s next Legislature likely GOP

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By Jonathon Ambarian University of Montana School of Journalism

While polls show a tight race for governor, the odds are with Republicans in the battle to control the next Montana Legislature.

On Nov. 6 Montana will elect all 100 of the members of the state House of Representatives and 26 of the Senate’s 50 members.

Jeff Greene, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, said that it’s possible, but unlikely, that Democrats will take back control of either house of the Legislature. He does expect them to win back several districts that typically voted Democratic before 2010.

“Just based on the way Montana is,” Greene said, “you’re going to see some of those seats go back to the way they usually vote.”

During the last legislative session, Republicans enjoyed a 68-seat majority in the House and a 28-seat majority in the Senate.

Republicans grabbed control of the House in 2010 by winning more than 18 seats held by Democrats. That swing was the largest in a single Montana election since 1966.

Challenge for Democrats

To gain a majority in the House, Democrats would have to hold 14 seats held by their incumbents, win all 27 races where there is no incumbent, and knock off 10 incumbent Republicans.

In the Senate, the margin is smaller, but numbers favor the GOP. Of the 24 senators who are not facing re-election this year, 16 are Republicans. This means Democrats would need to win 18 of the 26 contested seats to win a majority.

Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula, co-chair of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Caucus, said Democrats can win back the Legislature despite the odds. She said Montanans have had enough of the “extreme” Republican bills that drew a record number of vetoes in 2011.

“We feel confident about picking up seats because our candidates’ agenda is Montana’s agenda,” Hill said. “Democrats take a responsible, balanced approach to job creation. That’s what voters expect from Democrats, versus the out-of-touch, partisan, extreme bills they saw from Republicans least session.”

But Hill’s GOP counterpart, Rep. Gordy Vance of Bozeman, expects that Republicans will not only maintain their legislative majorities but also increase them. He sees the 2011 legislative session as a success.

“We showed people that you are able to stop the incredible growth in the size of state government and still provide services,” Vance said.

Races to watch

Several seats formerly held by Democrats are considered among the most competitive this election.

One race to watch is Whitefish’s House District 4, where the incumbent Republican Derek Skees has decided to run for state auditor. Skees won by only 85 votes in 2010. This year’s race features two newcomers: Republican Tim Baldwin, a Kalispell attorney, and Democrat Ed Lieser, a retired forester from Whitefish.

Another race to follow is House District 63 in Gallatin County. It was there in 2010 that Republican Tom Burnett defeated incumbent Democrat JP Pomnichowski by 71 votes. This year Burnett faces Democratic Rep. Franke Wilmer, who jumped districts to take him on. Theirs is the only race between two incumbent representatives.

Seven House races are rematches of 2010’s elections. In House District 15, which stretches from Arlee to Browning, Republican Rep. Joe Read will again face Democrat Frosty Calf Boss Ribs, a former representative who lost by 72 votes last time.

One of the most competitive Senate races may be in District 2, in Flathead County. Sen. Ryan Zinke gave up his seat in an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor. Vying to replace him are Republican Rep. Dee Brown of Hungry Horse and Democrat David Fern, a Whitefish business owner.

Democratic officials were reluctant to talk about their chances in specific races, but Republicans said they have high hopes they can capture a trio of Billings Senate seats now held by Democrats, including Sen. Kim Gillan, who is running for Congress. They’re also optimistic toppling Democratic Sen. Christine Kaufmann of Helena.

GOP hopes in the House include open seats held by term-limited Democrats Rep. Mike Menahan in Helena and Tim Furey in Missoula County.

Red, blue or purple?

Greene expects that the next Legislature will be more closely divided between the two parties, as it was before the 2010 elections. He said the legislative elections are likely to follow a different pattern than the statewide races.

“I see Montana in this election looking very red,” Greene said. “But when you come internally, Democrats tend to do pretty well.

Whatever the outcome in November, the next Legislature is sure to include many new faces. Eight senators and 16 representatives are not eligible to run in this year’s elections because of term limits.

Four incumbents didn’t make it through the June primary. GOP incumbents who won’t be back are Sen. Carmine Mowbray of Polson and Reps. Bob Wagner of Harrison, and Alan Hale of Basin. Democratic Rep. Tony Belcourt of Box Elder lost his primary race too.

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