HELENA — Montana Republicans look like a lock to hold their majority in the state House this election, but Democrats say they have hopes to shave down the GOP’s state Senate majority — or maybe even take it away.
“I think we’re feeling pretty good about it,” said state Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, who serves on the party’s Legislative Campaign Committee. “Every one of those folks (in key swing races) are running really strong races, they’re out on doors, they’ve been successful fundraising.”
Potential swing Senate races, where one party might take the seat away from the other, are concentrated in Billings, the Hi-Line and northwestern Montana.
But Republicans, who have a 28-22 edge in the Montana Senate, say Democrats are dreaming — and may even end up losing ground in the makeup of the Senate in next Tuesday’s election.
“We feel very confident about retaining our majority (in the Senate) and possibly picking up a couple of seats,” said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of Montana Republican Party.
The battle for control of the Legislature, where majority control means the ability to control the legislative agenda and dictate policy in the state, plays out every two years.
This year, there’s been less public attention paid to legislative races, as the media have focused more on Montana’s high-profile U.S. Senate race, the open governor’s race and the open seat for Montana’s only U.S. House seat.
Control of the Montana House is all but a foregone conclusion, as Republicans aren’t likely to lose their entire 68-32 majority two years after they picked up 18 seats.
Republicans concede that their House majority may shrink by at least a few seats, as Democrats are poised to win back some traditionally Democratic seats that they lost in the Tea Party wave of 2010.
The Senate, however, is another matter, with a half-dozen races that could go either way and tilt party control to Republicans or Democrats.
Greenwood says he thinks the odds are in Republicans’ favor because of President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the state and the lagging economy.
“I think Montanans are frustrated by the slow growth of our economy,” he said. “They don’t want to vote for more power for a political party that has demonstrated it supports the policies of Obama, policies that have not created growth in this country yet.”
Court, however, said Democrats have controlled the governorship for eight years and kept the state well in the black, with economic strength in many areas. Democrats are campaigning on that record, as well as their record of defending public access to public lands and defenders of women’s rights and programs, she said.
She also said Democrats will have a much better “ground game” than they did two years ago, turning out more voters who lean Democratic.
Here’s a quick look at five key state Senate races in Montana:
District 2 (Whitefish, Columbia Falls, North Fork of Flathead): Democrat Dave Fern, the owner of a chimney and fireplace business in Whitefish, is running against former state Rep. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, in this open seat held by outgoing Republican Sen. Ryan Zinke, who lost a primary race in June for lieutenant governor. Fern has had the financial advantage in campaign money in this swing district against Brown, who last held office in 2010.
District 17 (Havre, Chinook, Harlem): Former Public Service Commissioner and state Sen. Greg Jergeson of Chinook, a Democrat, is trying to return to the Senate and take this open seat away from Republicans, who won it four years ago. Republican businessman Don Richman of Harlem is trying to keep it in GOP hands. Both candidates have raised about $25,000, enough to wage respectable campaigns.
District 18 (northeastern Montana): In what may be the most expensive legislative race in Montana, Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, is working to fend off a challenge from Democrat and former state Rep. Julie French, who’s also from Scobey. The two candidates have raised nearly $100,000 in campaign funds — $54,000 by Brenden and nearly $43,000 by French.
District 24 (Billings Heights): Democrat Wanda Grinde, a former state representative who lost in 2010, is making a run to keep this seat in Democratic hands. It’s held now by outgoing state Sen. Kim Gillan, who is running for Congress. The Republican candidate is business owner Roger Webb, who has sunk $33,000 of his own money into the race.
District 27 (south Billings): State Rep. Elsie Arntzen, a Billings Republican and elementary school teacher who can’t run for re-election to her House seat because of term limits, is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Branae, a retired teacher. Both candidates have raised more than $25,000 in campaign funds, and the race is expected to be close.