HELENA - The two major political parties are battling for control of the Montana Legislature as voters prepare to fill all 100 House seats on Nov. 4 and half of the 50 Senate positions.
The political makeup of the 2007 Legislature was narrowly divided, with Democrats controlling the Senate 26-24, Republicans prevailing 50-49 in the House and a lone member of the Constitution Party rounding out that chamber. With an eye toward the biennial legislative session that convenes in January, each major party recruited candidates aggressively.
"These races are tight all over the state," said Erik Iverson, the state Republican Party chairman. "The balance of power could go either way."
The Montana Democratic Party recruited "candidates who look like their districts and are in touch with their communities," spokesman Kevin O'Brien said. With third-party or independent candidates pursuing seats in the Legislature and possibly siphoning votes away from Republicans, Democrats stand to benefit, O'Brien said. A dozen candidates have filed as independents or as contenders with Constitution Party or Libertarian affiliation.
Political scientist Craig Wilson of Montana State University Billings said Republicans probably have an advantage in their quest to control the Senate, given the party affiliation of senators whose positions are not up for election this time around. Among the 25 holdovers, 16 are in the GOP.
"The House, boy, it's a potpourri," Wilson said. "Extremely difficult to call."
Prominent House races include the Flathead Valley contest between Republican Dee Brown, who operates a small business, and Democrat Mick Holm, a former Glacier National Park superintendent.
Like some other candidates, Brown and Holm say the economy is a leading issue among voters to whom they speak.
Although Montana's unemployment rate is below the national average and the state budget surplus is projected at about $1 billion, voters are expressing concern about the effects of economic turmoil nationally and internationally. Besides the upheaval on Wall Street, voters in the district Brown and Holm want to represent have seen setbacks such as the summer announcement that Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. was laying off about 125 workers.
Brown said business at her recreational-vehicle campground was off 20 percent this summer. "I know that other small businesses are bleeding, too," she said.
Wilson said he is not surprised that voters talk to legislative hopefuls about the economy even though the Montana Legislature is not in a position to significantly address economic trouble occurring nationally and around the globe. Regardless of a candidate's scope, people view him or her as "somebody political" and want to discuss their leading concerns, Wilson said.
Prominent Senate races include the Eastern Montana contest between Huntley-area Republican Taylor Brown, whose years in the broadcasting business helped him achieve name recognition, and Democrat Lane Larson, a Billings electrician running for re-election.
Larson, who counted public access to streams among his leading issues during the 2007 legislative session, said Brown has thrust the local race under a statewide spotlight because he desires a higher office eventually.
"I won't say that I would never look at higher office," said Brown, who bought his core broadcast business from former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., in the 1980s and expanded it. "But I'm not looking at this as a step to anything else."
Also high profile is the race between Montana House Speaker Scott Sales, a Bozeman Republican, and Bob Brastrup, a Townsend Democrat. Sales describes himself as a "staunch fiscal conservative" who worked in the high-tech industry for 20 years and now manages a family portfolio of investments. Brastrup, a retired Montana State University Extension Service agent who worked in youth activities, said he is "conservative on fiscal matters but I believe in adequately funding programs." Inadequate funding can be as wasteful as excessive funding, he said.
Sales said he wants to be the speaker again.
Legislative leadership positions, including that of House speaker, will be filled in party caucuses soon after the election.