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Montana Senate Election Is Getting Very Nasty

Only five states have a split Senate delegation: Ohio, Maine, Montana, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (we count the three independents as Democrats, as that is the party with whom they caucus). All 45 of the other states are either all blue or all red in the Senate. When senators from opposing parties represent the same state, they usually try to at least refrain from openly attacking each other. When they can work together on something nonpartisan (like getting pork for their state), they usually try to. Most people don't like to see their senators in open warfare with one another, so the senators generally try to avoid it.

That will be impossible in Montana this year and next. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is up for reelection. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) is not. However, Daines is chairman of the NRSC. His job will be to defeat all vulnerable Democratic senators up in 2024—for example, his colleague Tester. When one senator's job is to make sure his colleague loses his job, friendly rivalry turns very nasty very fast. This has already happened in Montana.

When a reporter asked Tester if Daines took the NRSC job specifically to defeat him, Tester said: "That's your perspective. And I don't necessarily think that perspective is wrong." Montana has a lot of cattle, but the biggest beef in the state is now between the two senators.

The two men are very different. Tester is a down-to-earth dirt farmer with prairie populist views on most things. His campaign website features several photos of him on his farm. Daines is a buttoned-up conservative and strong supporter of Donald Trump, who Tester detests. The front page of Daines' 2020 campaign website features a big photo of... Donald Trump addressing a crowd. Here are the photos on the top of the front pages of their respective campaign Websites. The former has Tester smiling in front of a pickup truck, the latter has Daines standing behind Donald Trump at a rally.

Photos on the websites of Jon Tester and Steve Daines

The race is about to get worse, even though the Republicans don't have a candidate yet. The Republican-controlled state legislature wants to change the election rules specifically to defeat Tester. How do we know that? Well, because the proposed new rules will apply only to the 2024 Senate race and no other races. Not to gubernatorial elections, not elections for attorney general or other statewide offices, and not to House elections or state legislature elections. Just to Tester's election. The Republicans aren't shy about it at all.

Here's the deal. Currently, Montana elections are first-past-the-post. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. That's it. It isn't necessary to get 50% or more, just more than all the other candidates. There are no runoffs in Montana. So far, so good, right? Well, Montana has a relatively strong Libertarian bent and the Libertarian Party does moderately well there. Here are the results of Tester's three Senate elections.

Year Tester Republican Libertarian
2006 49.16% 48.29% 2.55%
2012 47.58% 44.86% 6.56%
2018 50.33% 46.67% 2.88%

In the first two, the Libertarian candidate got just enough votes to deprive Tester of a majority. In 2018, he got a majority, but barely. So the Republican legislators put on their thinking caps and tried to figure out a way to force Libertarian voters to vote for the Republican. It wasn't hard. They just copied the top-two systems used in California and Washington. So in the bill, which has already cleared the state Senate, the partisan primaries would be replaced by an all-party primary with the top two finishers advancing to the general election. The top two would virtually certainly be the Democrat and the Republican. Since the Libertarian Party candidate would not be on the November ballot, Libertarian voters would more-or-less be forced to hold their noses and vote for the Republican, thus defeating Tester. Brilliant, no?

However, the Republicans realized that if they introduced this new system for all state elections, the Libertarians would be extremely angry and potentially take it out on the Republicans. Libertarians generally agree with the Democrats on abortion, same-sex marriage, and many culture-war issues (but not on economic issues). They say these are none of the government's business. So it is not impossible for a Libertarian to vote for a Democrat. They do have some common interests. To avoid really infuriating the Libertarians, the Republicans are saying: "It's just for this one election. Then you can go back to voting for the LP candidate."

Will this stunt work? We don't know, but we do know that if the system is changed, Tester will put a lot of emphasis on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights where Libertarians agree with the Democrats and disagree with the Republicans. He will say: "The decision to have an abortion is between a woman and her doctor. Not between a woman and her congressman." Most Libertarians agree with this. They tend to see government as the problem, not the solution. The whole stunt could backfire spectacularly. Although the Republicans have already lost three Senate elections to Tester, so it's not like they can do worse than they already have. Well, unless Libertarians and/or civic-minded Republicans vote Democratic in other races just to reach the Republicans a lesson.

This is the modern Republican Party in action. If you can't win elections under the current rules, change the rules so you can. Sometimes it is this kind of stuff (which they don't really believe in or they would have made the change permanent and for all offices). Sometimes it is voter suppression. In the 21st century, it is rarely "support policies the voters want." (V)

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