HELENA — Yellowstone County, home to Montana’s largest city and one-seventh of its voters, was once considered solid Republican country — but now, it’s become the site of the occasional Democratic victory in statewide races.
Still, Yellowstone County, where nearly 70,000 people voted in the 2012 elections, is described by most local political veterans as tilting Republican.
“I still think Yellowstone County is a ‘leans Republican,’ county,” said Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. “I actually think in terms of political party strength, the local (Republican) party has been growing stronger.”
Democrat Brian Schweitzer won Yellowstone County when he ran for governor in 2004 and 2008, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., edged Republican Denny Rehberg, who’s from Billings, in 2012, and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus routinely won the county, including a victory over Rehberg in 1996.
Yet Republicans continue to dominate the county’s legislative delegation and have won every presidential election here since 1968.
For years, Yellowstone County was as strongly Republican as Butte-Silver Bow was solidly Democratic.
In the 1960s, Yellowstone County routinely elected what was known locally as “the straight eight,” a group of eight state representatives who were all Republicans.
Some of the biggest names in Montana politics are former Republican officeholders from Billings: Former Gov. Tim Babcock, former U.S. Rep. Jim Battin, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
State Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, concurs with the “leans Republican” assessment, but said the politics vary by area in the county and city.
“What you have in Billings, is it very much leans progressive downtown, and the farther into the Heights and the west, it is more conservative,” he said.
Van Dyk also said Yellowstone County voters are ticket-splitters, sometimes choosing to support someone from one party and then another, on the same ballot.
In 2012, Democrat Tester eked out a 488-vote win in Yellowstone County over Rehberg, the state’s congressman, in the Senate race, while presidential candidate Mitt Romney, gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill and U.S. House candidate Steve Daines — all Republicans — took the county.
Observers from both parties say Tester’s victory in Yellowstone County in part might be because of voter backlash over a 2010 lawsuit filed by Rehberg and his wife, Jan, against the city of Billings over how firefighters battled a fire on their land two years earlier. The Rehbergs dropped the lawsuit in 2011, with their lawyer saying it had become “mired in politics.”
Laurel, a railroad and refinery town west of Billings, shifted from solidly Democratic to reliably Republican in the mid-1990s.
In 1994, Republicans Ken Miller and Brad Molnar won a Senate seat and a House seat, respectively, from Laurel, that had long been Democratic. Republicans have held both seats almost every election since.
“(Laurel) is still a very strong union town,” Miller said. “(But) I think they have changed. I think they have seen the Democrats taking away their livelihood.”
Miller said he and Molnar emphasized natural-resource development and hunting and fishing issues, which are important to the area’s blue-collar voters, he said.
Bill Kennedy, a longtime Democratic Yellowstone County commissioner, said Laurel has changed over the years from a railroad town to one where most Laurel residents work in Billings.
“Folks in Laurel have a different philosophical view from the day of the old railroaders,” Kennedy said.
As for the future of Yellowstone County politics, Essmann says statewide Republicans who devote plenty of time to campaigning in Billings still do well here.
Steve Daines, a Republican now running for the U.S. Senate, logged many days stumping in the county in 2012 for the U.S. House, Essmann said, and it paid off, with Daines beating Democrat Kim Gillan, who is from Billings, by 9,000 votes in the county.
Kennedy said Democratic candidates need to be “more moderate and business-minded all over Yellowstone County,” which may be different than how they campaign elsewhere in the state.
The No. 1 issue in the county is jobs, Kennedy said, and voters also want their elected officials to be fiscally responsible.
“Sometimes if you get criticized by the far right and the far left, you’re probably sitting pretty good in Yellowstone County,” Kennedy said.