Campaign Beat: Montana Republicans Swept, Now Can They Deliver?
The Republican messaging in this election clearly won over voters. The conservative Republican agenda includes tax cuts and fewer regulations. Now, can Republicans deliver on their prosperity promises?
Listen now on the final 2020 episode of Campaign Beat with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.
Sally Mauk Well, Rob, I'm pretty sure the post-election party is not being held at Democratic headquarters this weekend. The Republican dominance from top to bottom, I think, surprised everyone, including the winners. And the two sides had very different campaign messages, but clearly the Republican messaging prevailed.
Rob Saldin Yeah, it sure did, Sally. And, you know, I guess I would say I don't necessarily find any of the results in terms of who won and who lost to be very surprising. What is really surprising, though, is the margin, right? You know, 10 and 12 points in the statewide.
And certainly those are much bigger margins for Republicans than the polling had been suggesting. But I think a big kind of takeaway dynamic from this is that Republicans had started out with the goal of nationalizing this campaign in Montana, and Democrats were trying to keep the focus on local stuff, on Montana issues, on a referendum on some of these candidates as individuals, not as partizan figures.
And at the end of the day, the Republicans appear to have been very successful in doing that, Right? And so they went into this with the goal of linking the Democratic candidates with national hate figures like Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, the socialists, "the squad," all of these kinds of figures. Democrats tried to run away from that and distance themselves a little bit from the National Party. But with Trump at the top of the ticket, that's, I think, just hard to do. And Trump did better than projected in Montana. Not quite as well as he did four years ago, but still, he won by 16, you know, way better than the six to seven percent margin that he was expected to do. And you also have a dynamic, at least with Steve Bullock in that it's just harder, I think, to avoid being associated with Democratic leaders in Congress when you're actually running for Congress. Right? It's easier to kind of ignore that national stuff, play to the hometown issues when you're running for governor.
Sally Mauk And it does seem like, Rob, that Montanans voted straight ticket in this election. I mean, the fact that Republicans won every single seat in the statewide offices does suggest that people just voted Republican for everything and didn't look necessarily at the individual races.
Rob Saldin Absolutely. That old Montana tradition that we've talked about a number of times of splitting your ticket, it looks like that may be at an end, or at least it's not what happened this time. And I think that's a feature of our polarized environment, where everything kind of comes down to an R vs. D. You know, my team versus the other team kind of mentality. And in that kind of a scenario, Republicans have an advantage in Montana because after all, there are more Republicans in Montana than there are Democrats.
Sally Mauk Holly, here's what newly elected Governor Greg Gianforte had to say on election night.
"Folks, tonight you sent a loud message to Helena, a message to the state capital from every corner of this great state. That after 16 long years of single-party rule in the governor's office, it's time for Helena to change the way they do business."
Sally Mauk And the change, Holly that Republicans are promising is less government and more money in your pocket.
Holly Michels Yeah, that is what we heard from the candidates throughout this campaign up and down the ballot, including Gianforte. I think sort of building on what Rob was talking about with, you know, not only the Republican sweep, but the big margins that we saw; Republicans I interviewed this week after the election really do see that as a mandate to carry out some of the priorities that they campaigned on.
For Gianforte we heard during the campaign a couple of different messages from him. One was a different response to the pandemic than we've seen under the Bullock administration. You know, Gianforte mostly talked about an economic response and recovery, less about the health issues, but has made clear he emphasizes the idea of personal responsibility more than things like mandates or directives from a public health perspective.
He also campaigned on putting a freeze on state spending and attempting to reduce taxes, look at some regulations that could also be taken off the books. I think the freeze on state spending will be interesting to see how that plays out. Gianforte said that doesn't necessarily mean it would result in budget cuts, but if you look at, generally, the cost of running state government increases just with inflation year over year. So, many people have said that this would likely lead to cuts somewhere in the budget. With the tax thing, Republicans in the Legislature say that being able to lower taxes is really important them to show voters that they're getting what they wanted when they elected these Republican candidates. And the set up, you know, already looking for years ahead to a second Gianforte term.
But then other Republicans — more sort of aligned with moderate, solutions caucus type that we've talked about before on the show — they're saying that it's going to be a really hard year to be able to do anything with reducing taxes just because the budget is going to be so tight because of the coronavirus. Think there's other priorities that legislative Republicans who did pick up, I think, last I looked it was like about nine seats in the Legislature, that they want to bring. You're looking at "right to work" legislation, "school choice" issues. You know, Gianforte tried to, I think, distance himself a little bit from right to work legislation during the election. His running mate Kristen Juras had said that Gianforte wouldn't veto a right to work bill if it came to his desk, and his campaign later came out and said, look, that wouldn't be a priority for us. But Republicans in the Legislature obviously think that they would have a sympathetic ear there and have talked about — there's a leaked memo that circulated, and some have spoken on the record in interviews about that being a priority. Same with school choice. You know, Gianforte is supportive of private schools. He started one in Bozeman. Again, tried to moderate himself a little bit during the campaign by saying, you know, he didn't think that there was, in many smaller communities in Montana, that there'd be enough student population to support a private school alongside a public one. But we do see Republican lawmakers looking at different sort of proposals that would elevate private schools, thinking that Gianforte would be more friendly to those ideas at the end of the road, versus a Democrat governor who's vetoed several different things that they've tried in the past.
Sally Mauk Rob, I'm Kansas, born and bred. And not long ago, Kansas had a Republican governor, Sam Brownback, who had a very similar agenda to Greg Gianforte. He ran on cutting taxes and cutting regulations. And then a few years later, Kansas was broke and he left office more or less in disgrace. So Republicans in Montana, Rob, they have to deliver the prosperity that they've promised or face the consequences.
Rob Saldin Well, right, Sally. I mean, what Holly was just describing, it is a major change, right? Basically, for a generation we've had the same dynamic at work, and that is Democratic governors with a Republican Legislature. And so a lot of what was passed by the Legislature, and certainly the more controversial things, were vetoed by Democratic governors. Well, now it's Republicans who have all the power. And it's not just the Republican Party. It's a particular wing of the Republican Party. It is the conservatives who have the power. And, you know, obviously, that's a great situation when it comes to getting your policy preferences enacted into law. But as a purely political matter, I do think there is some risk of going too far of overreaching as happened in Kansas. And, you know, in a way we could, I think, point to Wisconsin, too, as being in that kind of a same situation. And that kind of thing provokes a backlash, so it was a terrible night for Democrats, so there is no way around it. And we are facing a situation in Helena that we have not seen for a very, very long time. But I think looking to the future, Democrats can hope to be a little opportunistic and be ready to pounce if Gianforte and the Republicans take things farther than Montanans want. If they exceed their mandate, we could see a different dynamic emerge.
Sally Mauk Well, Montana Democrats, Holly, are at a pivot point and they have to figure out what went so wrong for them this election and how do they stay relevant as a minority party. They've got some real reassessing to do right now.
Holly Michels Yeah, I think it'll be interesting to see what happens there. Some Democrats and people adjacent to the party that I spoke with this week, you know, were talking about really solidifying, trying to have a really unified party going into the legislative session. For them, it's not new to be in the minority in the state Legislature by any means. But like we were just talking about, a really different landscape. So trying to figure out how to advocate hard for their priorities there.
And then I do think, you know, look at how the party wins statewide. They're going to be doing some soul searching, especially with losing all of the tier-b races this year. And in 2016 to the end, they lost all those statewide except the governor's office. So there's not that really big bench of candidates to be looking forward to. So I think, you know, figuring out what they're doing there, you know, I think the Jon Tester model, I think a lot of people I've talked to kind of view him as a brand unto himself. That's really hard to replicate with other Democrats, but he's been successful. So looking at maybe ideas from there.
I do, you know, think where they're going to struggle with what Rob was talking about with polarization and how you counter that and get back to people splitting tickets, because, like Rob said, there are just more Republicans in Montana than Democrats. You need people to be splitting on those tickets like we saw with Bullock winning in 16 with reelection to governor's office. So I think trying to figure out how to counter that is going to be a pretty big lift for them.
Sally Mauk A lot of those Republicans, Rob, live in rural parts of Montana. It does seem like Democrats are going to have to find a way to reach those folks.
Rob Saldin Yeah, yeah, they sure are. And, you know, I'd say and in addition to, Holly, what you mentioned; you know, like, who are the rising stars of the Democratic Party? Well, a bunch of them just got wiped out this week. That's a problem. But possibly a bigger problem is that this really didn't come out of nowhere. So in recent decades, a lot of similarly situated states like Idaho and the Dakotas where Democrats used to be competitive, we've seen those turn into solidly Republican states. And Montana — in that dynamic — Montanans stood out as the anomaly. And part of the reason Democrats have been able to hold on in Montana is, Holly, exactly what you mentioned with reference to Tester, that they've had a batch of iconic figures in this state who had their own personal brand that was able to overcome that party label. Think about, like, Max Baucus and Brian Schweitzer and Pat Williams. Well, the problem is that once those people leave the stage, things revert back to this more generic R vs. D situation. And under those more natural conditions, Republicans have a big advantage. So it's a real challenge for the Democratic Party. I mean, they have to hope that events create some opportunities. They need to find some compelling candidates and they need to figure out some way, it seems to me, to create some real distance between themselves and the National Party, that has rightly or wrongly come to be associated with things that don't play well in Montana. Right? Things like socialism and defunding the police and so on. You know, that stuff is just poison in Montana. And even if Democratic candidates aren't endorsing that, they aren't using that language, well, some people in their party are. And Republicans have now demonstrated that they're pretty darn good at exploiting that.
Sally Mauk With the election year drawing to a close, this is the last Campaign Beat this season. And Holly and Rob, it's been such a great pleasure to talk politics with you every week. Take good care. And I thank you so much.
Campaign Beat is a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat features University of Montana political science professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin, and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk.