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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Facing a Republican supermajority, Democrats look to moderates and undecided voters

 House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena speaks during the 2022 Montana Democratic Platform Convention.
Shaylee Ragar
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House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena speaks during the 2022 Montana Democratic Platform Convention.

Montana Democrats amended their platform over the weekend to make clear their priorities for the next legislative session. Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar and Yellowstone Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin were at the convention. They explain what’s top of mind for Democrats ahead of the November election.

Ellis Juhlin Shaylee, Democrats met ahead of the upcoming legislative session, where they're facing the possibility of a superminority. The party also strategized about how to pull in undecided voters as it tries to regain power lost over the last few years. This includes their goal of making their platform more appealing to moderate voters. What does that look like in practice?

Shaylee Ragar We saw this play out in a few different ways. So Democrats talked about issues that affect Montanans really broadly, like the lack of affordable housing or high property taxes. And they also tried to temper some of their language. So, for example, Democrats amended a statement to say people should have privacy, freedom and control to make health care decisions. And that's a reference to protecting access to abortion. And Democrats said they used that language instead of "bodily autonomy" because they believe the words "freedom" and "control" appeal more broadly. Rep. Ed Stockman of Bozeman led the charge to speak to moderates. He says he thinks Republicans have moved far to the right and have left the political middle up for grabs.

Ed Stockman I think the great majority of the Democratic Party are moderates. Who, when we get out there and are able to show folks that we are so much more in tune with where these extremist Republicans are, that I'm encouraged that we're actually going to gain some seats in the Legislature.

Shaylee Ragar Democrats lost ten seats in the state Legislature in the 2020 election, and Republicans are just a few seats shy of a supermajority. Democrats really tried to distinguish themselves by talking about climate change, Ellis, which only came up once at the GOP convention. Where do they differ?

Ellis Juhlin Like you mentioned, Shaylee, climate change came up in quite a few planks, with several amendments passing in the Democratic Convention. They added "a livable climate and environment" to a list of basic necessities that they believe everyone should have access to. They also declared that the planet is in a state of climate emergency and used this to inform a lot of other policies that they put into their platform. The biggest reflection of this increased focus really comes from an amendment that passed to rename the energy plank to energy and climate change. Here's the amendment sponsor Anja Wookey-Huffman, a delegate from Bozeman.

Anja Wookey-Huffman "Considering that we have a 'We Support' section for climate change, I think it's appropriate that this plank be titled Energy and Climate Change, not exclusively Energy."

Shaylee Ragar So in keeping with the theme of addressing issues that Montanans all over the state are facing, the issue of housing came up a lot.

Ellis Juhlin Yes. Housing didn't come up in the GOP convention, but it was a big topic of discussion for the Democrats. Mark Smith, a delegate from Gallatin County, brought forward an amendment to add housing to the names of the "job and economy" plank making it "jobs, housing and the economy" to reflect a focus on this issue.

Mark Smith "Young people aren't able to afford to buy their homes. And this goes not just from the real boom counties like Flathead or Gallatin. But this morning, I talked to my friend Dean from Lewistown. Lewistown's got a housing crisis going!"

Shaylee Ragar Overall, it seems like news and current events really informed much of the discussion at the convention like it did with the housing crisis, right?

Ellis Juhlin You're absolutely right. We really saw current events come up a lot.

Shaylee Ragar I think another example of that is when delegates talked about the history of Indian boarding schools, which have also been making headlines recently. The party amended its plank focused on Native American issues to voice support for creating a commission to investigate and document the "cultural genocide, assimilation practices and human rights violations" of Indian boarding schools. The U.S. Department of the Interior reports that Montana was home to 18 of these schools. Lance Four Star, a delegate of Fort Peck, brought the amendment to create this commission.

Lance Four Star "Anybody that's been on a reservation or knows the the conditions that we exist in, as I do in the Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux Reservation, oftentimes these are symptoms of this cultural genocide. A lot of the abuse that occurred gets reciprocated throughout Indian countries."

Shaylee Ragar It's not yet clear exactly how all of these priorities will translate to legislation, but we'll likely be seeing more bill drafts as we get closer to January and the start of the session.

Ellis Juhlin You know, Shaylee, it's interesting, as someone who's new to Montana, these two conventions felt like conversations about problems that were happening in two different states. While Republicans were very focused on election security and debates between far right and moderate party members, we really saw a lot more conversations about things like we've touched on already: climate change, housing and Indigenous affairs. What the party chose to focus on and the problems they sought to address were so vastly different. What do you think the implications are for the legislative session?

Shaylee Ragar I think legislative Democrats are really aware they have an uphill battle being in the minority. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott spoke about this last month during the unveiling of a plan to use state budget surplus funds.

Kim Abbott "Our job is to deliver solutions for our constituents and our communities, and that's what we're doing. We need for Republicans to get in the game, honestly."

Shaylee Ragar Democrats won't be able to pass the legislation they care most about without the help or compromise from moderate Republicans.

Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.