Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-day series on the divided political landscape in Montana, which is neither “red” nor “blue,” but somewhere in between. 

BOZEMAN — As Bozeman mayor Jeff Krauss sips his coffee at The Leaf and Bean on Main Street, he compares the politics of his county to something you might find in the coffeehouse’s pastry case.

“If you consider us Gallatin County, we’re more like a jelly doughnut, with the center being 'blue' and the doughnut part being 'red,'” he said. “And I’m not sure there’s a lot of purple in there. It’s mostly either blue or red.”

The “blue,” of course, is the urban core of Bozeman, where Democrats routinely are elected by comfortable margins, while the “red” is the Republican suburbs and rural areas of the county, where conservatives rule the political day.

The same could be said of Montana as a whole: Most of its cities are dominated by Democrats, but most of its vast rural areas remain solidly Republican, creating a divided political landscape that prompt some to call Montana a “purple” state.

This split political personality comes through loud and clear in Montana’s election results for the past two decades.

The state usually goes Republican in presidential elections, and the GOP has controlled the state Legislature in all but one or two sessions since the early 1990s. But Democrats have proven more than able to win key statewide offices, such as governor and U.S. senator — and sometimes have kept things close in the Legislature.

“Montana is definitely not Idaho or Wyoming,” said Dave Fern, who chairs the Democratic Central Committee in the Republican stronghold of northwest Montana’s Flathead County. “And I’m hoping we’ll stay a lot more (politically) diverse than those states for a long time.”

Yet while Montana’s politics are diverse, veterans of its political trenches worry that partisanship here is hardening, as the “red” and “blue” elements become more isolated and entrenched and less apt to work together.

“It’s a rural-urban dividing line where there are almost no competitive rural (legislative) seats and almost no competitive urban seats,” said Dave Hunter, who’s run or helped run numerous statewide Democratic campaigns. “If we lose our ability to compromise, then this form of government doesn’t work very well. I don’t see anything that’s changing this trend.”

In Bozeman, one of Montana’s fastest-growing areas, many of the trends shaping statewide politics are visible.

Home to MSU, Bozeman is a college town, with 15,000 students and a growing professional class, high-tech startups, small manufacturing and a thriving service sector. Many of its new residents lean Democratic, making an already-blue urban core even bluer.

Once reliably Republican in statewide elections, Gallatin County has shifted ever-so-slightly to the left in recent elections. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the county since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, and in 2012, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock, who won close races statewide, won Gallatin County by comfortable margins.

At the same time, however, Obama lost the county in 2012 by five percentage points and Republican Steve Daines, a hometown boy, defeated Democrat Kim Gillan in the U.S. House race by more than 10 percentage points.

Krauss said as the city has become more Democratic, residents and newcomers who want more elbow room, less regulations and cheaper housing are migrating to Gallatin County’s bedroom communities and rural areas, which were already pretty conservative. These areas are now deep-red Republican, often represented by some of the most conservative lawmakers at the Legislature.

“Bozeman went one way and that caused the county to go the other way,” he said.

Franke Wilmer, an MSU political science professor and a Democratic state representative running for the state Senate in Bozeman, agrees, and said another factor at work is longtime residents’ concern that their rural way of life is getting swamped by a flood of newcomers and development.

“The pace of change can make people more conservative, because they want to resist the effects they see from all that change,” she said. “That can bring out the 'defend-me-against-the-new-people' feelings.”

But Wilmer said independents are a growing sector of the political spectrum in Montana, that don’t identify with one party or the other. The conventional wisdom has been that they lean Republican in Montana, but that may be changing, she said.

State Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, a Republican and attorney in Bozeman, said he doesn’t see Gallatin County as a microcosm of Montana, because many areas of the state are not growing as much.

Yet he agrees that Montana remains a politically split state — and he doesn’t see that as necessarily bad.

“I think split governance is good,” Wittich said. “It means diversity of thought, it means better debate, it means better (political) results. We argue about a lot of things, but when you’re talking about important issues, as far as liberty, freedom, taxes and spending, it’s important to have those vigorous debates. I’m glad that it isn’t a one-party system.”

What does the future hold for Montana’s political makeup? Opinions on that particular subject are as diverse as Montana politics.

David Parker, a political scientist at MSU in Bozeman, said more and more people are migrating away from rural areas to cities. Republicans in Montana and the nation may find it increasingly difficult to keep winning elections if they rely primary on the rural vote, he said.

“It will be harder for Republicans to compete unless they speak to issues that urban voters care about,” he said.

Others, however, say they see Montana’s electorate becoming more conservative, even in some cities, as the population ages and the influence of organized labor continues to wane.

“I’d be willing to bet that, over time, the advantages that Democrats have had will begin to change,” said Dave Wanzenried, a longtime Democratic legislator from Missoula who recently moved to Billings. “Take a look at the number of times an incumbent Republican (legislator) has been defeated by a Democratic challenger. It doesn’t happen very often.”

Joe Balyeat, a Republican former legislator from Bozeman, also said he believes government overreach, such as the sprawling health care legislation passed in 2010 known as “Obamacare,” will be damaging for Democrats in independent-minded Montana.

Yet another factor in Montana elections is voter turnout. During presidential election years, turnout is much higher — and that tends to favor Democrats, said Joe Lamson of Helena, a longtime Democratic strategist.

“I would argue that the real (voter) base of Montana is not totally red, but at least purple,” he said. “If Democrats don’t turn out, then Republicans carry the day.”

Finally, there’s the X factor of Montana’s small population, which enables many voters to see their candidates on the street and talk to them.

“I think people in Montana more often vote the person rather than the party,” said state Rep. J.P. Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman. “It’s still small enough that people can talk to the candidate, him or herself. I cannot make it through the produce section in the grocery store  because I have so many one-on-one conversations with people.”

Gazette State Bureau Chief Charles S. Johnson contributed to this story.

Coming Monday: A look at some of Montana’s reddest and bluest areas, and what makes them the color they are.

 

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Managing editor at The Billings Gazette.