Montana’s new congressional districts were finalized Tuesday with a subtle change and a continuing debate, paving the way for two distinct U.S. House races for the first time in 32 years.
The decision, approved on a final 3-2 vote, means that the 12 candidates already campaigning for House seats now know the boundaries of the state’s two congressional districts.
Democrats on the state Districting and Apportionment Commission gained one small change Tuesday to the Republican-drawn map that had advanced Nov. 4 on 3-2 decision. Pondera County, which is the only county with turf in both districts, received a smaller share of the Western district than initially proposed. Pondera contains a portion of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation which is in the Western district. Tuesday’s change means the reservation portion of Pondera will remain in the West.
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After securing the adjustment, Democrats continued to oppose the Republican map, insisting that the bipartisan commission had missed a chance to the create a district that candidates would have to compete for. As drawn, the new Western district favors Republicans by 7%, Commissioner Kendra Miller said. The Eastern district, solidly Republican, was never part of the discussion about making sure districts were competitively drawn.
“Neither district on this plan is seriously competitive. That's very unfortunate for our state,” Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller said. “Our country has a dwindling number of competitive congressional districts. We won't help that with today's decision. And we certainly won't help ensure more responsiveness or accountability from elected officials. Candidates are pushed towards extremes in safe districts. We will continue to experience the consequences of those extremes moving forward. Neither district on this plan is seriously competitive. The two districts together don't adequately represent the overall makeup of our state. And for that reason, this plan has been drawn to unduly favor one political party.”
The commission is comprised of two members selected by Republican leadership of the Montana Legislature and two members selected by a Democratic leadership. A fifth member is selected by the Montana Supreme Court.
The court’s appointee was Maylinn Smith, a mediator by profession, who early on encouraged the commission’s members to avoid her tiebreaking vote by reaching a compromise. The compromise was never there, though Smith did get Republicans and Democrats on the commission to submit maps that were similar in the way the dividing line between east and west roughly followed the spine of the Rocky Mountains.
The big differences between partisan commissioners centered on Flathead, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, and Park counties. Republicans were adamant that Flathead be included in District 1. Flathead is Montana's fifth most populous county, but is second only to the state's most populous county, Yellowstone, in Republican voters.
Democrats focused on including Gallatin, Lewis and Clark and Park in the West, or at least Bozeman, Helena and Park, which are communities Democrats must win in order to prevail in statewide elections.
In the end, both Flathead and Gallatin counties were included in District 1, while Lewis and Clark and Park counties were located in District 2.
One of Smith's preferences was to include two Indian reservations in the Western district and also to minimize the division of counties as much as possible. In the end, the Republican proposal that prevailed had those characteristics. While earlier Democratic maps also came close, the last map those commissioners advanced didn’t.
Both Republicans and Democrats pointed to past political outcomes in the West to suggest the competitiveness of their maps. Democrats never produced a map that gave their candidates a winning edge, but did produce a district that favored Republicans by less than 5%.
Smith said the election outcomes of the maps produced by either group of commissioners were similar enough in the West, at least for U.S. House, which Democrats would have won in 2017 with Rob Quist and 2018 with Kathleen Williams, while Republicans won in 2014 and 2016 with Ryan Zinke, and 2020 with Matt Rosendale. Overall, Republican candidates for all statewide offices during that period won the district 75% of the time.
“In making my decision, I looked at what I thought was fair for all Montana. I had two maps that the information provided to me indicated that for the congressional seat, which is the seat this map is addressing, that the election results for the last five elections were the same,” Smith said.
“So, I take that information, and I'm saying these maps are not going to make a difference in the election results. That's as competitive as I can get it under the maps that I'm given," she added. "So, I view this as competitive. I too, want extraordinary candidates. That's how you get good government is you have extraordinary people out there that can advocate. I think both sides are capable of putting forth extraordinary candidates. This is not a statewide race this is a congressional district and that's what I'm basing my decision on when I voted for map 12 in looking at that information.”
Republican Commissioner Jeff Essmann said the Western district will be competitive.
“In terms of the Western district, you know, as it's drawn, this is not, whether it is represented in the future by a Democrat or Republican, it will never be considered a safe seat in the 10 years going forward that would permit any candidate to not listen to the voters of that district,” Essmann said. “They're going to have to listen, they're going to have to campaign in every community, town, berg and two reservations, in order to get to 50%, plus one vote. I firmly believe that, and so I do believe we should strive frankly to select exceptional candidates and not elect unexceptional candidates. You know, I served with Ms. Williams, for example, and I consider her to be a good legislator and she proved to be a good candidate, and she actually would have won that district had it been in place.”
Though she lost in 2018, Kathleen Williams set a 24-year high mark for Democratic performance in Montana’s at-large U.S. House elections in 2018 and ran again in 2020 when Republicans swept statewide offices on the ballot. She isn’t among the 12 candidates running for U.S. House in Montana currently.
Several analyses have illustrated competitive differences between the prevailing map and the Democrats’ preferred option, Congressional Proposal 11.
Blackfeet Nation Chairman Timothy Davis submitted a letter objecting to the prevailing map saying the Blackfeet “do not believe map CP 12 is competitive enough to actually incentivize politicians to engage with us and therefore do not believe it meets the competitive criteria.”
Davis based the conclusion on a study commissioned by the Native American Rights Fund. The study by Loren Collingwood, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, looked at Montana statewide races on the ballot in 2016, 2018 and 2020. I those years, the votes in District 1 favored Republican candidates in every race in 2020, and five of six races in 2016. District 1 voters voted to reelect Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. The average margin of victory for Republican candidates was 6.1% in 2020 and 4.18% in 2016 in the prevailing congressional map.
Democrats did better in 2018, receiving a majority of the vote in the U.S. House and Senate Races in the district, but losing a clerk of Supreme Court race.
House results favored Republican candidates in 2020, when Matt Rosendale won by a 4.6% advantage and in 2016, when Ryan Zinke had a 7.7% victory margin. Democrat Williams won the district with a 2.9% victory margin in 2018.
The results were not unlike the ones reported by commissioners Essmann and Stusek when they re-introduced the prevailing map on Oct. 30. The Republicans included the 2017 special election for U.S. House in their analysis. That year Democrat Rob Quist had a 3.9% victory margin with district voters.
New: in a setback for Dems, the tie-breaking member of Montana's commission has sided w/ its GOP members to pick a map that would place Helena in an eastern #MT02 and make the western #MT01 Trump +7, very likely resulting in a 2R-0D delegation. pic.twitter.com/nyTg4S6AvR— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) November 5, 2021
After the commission selected the prevailing map as a finalist Nov. 4, the U.S. House Editor for Cook Political Report, David Wasserman, called the selection a setback for Democrats and a very likely two Republican U.S. House delegation for Montana. Wasserman on Twitter noted that Donald Trump had a 7% margin of victory in the district in 2020. Trump’s margin of victory in the district in 2016 was nearly 12%.
Political analysts at FiveThirtyEight see the prevailing map as giving Republicans a 10% partisan lean in the West in the 2022 election. In the East, where Republicans dominate the ballot and incumbent Matt Rosendale is seeking reelection, FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 30% partisan lean.
The map submitted by commission Democrats would have given Republicans a 7% partisan lean in the West, FiveThirtyEight concluded.