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Campaign Beat: 2022 post-election breakdown

This week on the year's final Campaign Beat episode: How Tranel lost and how Rosendale won. A snarky victory speech and emotional concession speech. A defeat for opponents of legal abortion, a legislative trouncing and Montana Democrats left with some soul-searching to do.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk Holly, the western district congressional race between Democrat Monica Tranel and Republican Ryan Zinke was closer than I think a lot of people expected, with Zinke winning by only 8,000 votes over Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb in a distant third. Zinke, Holly, got a lot of his winning votes where you might expect he would.

Holly Michels Yeah, he did. He won Flathead, Lake, Ravalli counties, all of those larger, pretty conservative counties in the district. And then he racked up big margins in smaller, rural, really deep red counties like Beaverhead, Lincoln, Granite. Not a lot of votes there, but he was getting 65 to 75% of what was on the table. Combined with that, I think we saw Tranel underperforming in some pretty critical places. The one that stands out to me is Butte-Silver Bow County. If you look at what Democrat Steve Bullock did in his 2020 Senate race, Tranel was about 5% below that. And that's a place where a Democrat really needs to add to their total. Jon Lamb, Like you said, the Libertarian candidate, some people thought he might be a spoiler for Zinke, but he ended up getting just about 9,300 votes or about 4%.

The county that I'm really interested in this election is Glacier County. It's a blue county home to the part of the Blackfeet reservation. But I think he really outperformed past Republicans there, even though he did lose that county. He took about 40% of the vote, which is pretty significant there. That does come to just about 1,200 votes, but when you win, like you said, by 8,000, that really matters.

And turnout, too, was a factor. We talked about in previous shows. We expected it to be low. It was. It was about 60% this midterm, you know, obviously trailing the 2020 presidential election year. And it was also down from 2018 when we had a pretty major Senate race. Still does put us above 2014. But I think it was a factor here. Gallatin County tracked about 5% below the rest of the state and turnout. We talked previously about issues with mail ballots there. That was a place where Tranel was going to win. She needed to do really well. And again, looking at Glacier County, it was abysmal there at about 37%. So, a lot of factors here leading to this Zinke win. It kind of, I think, you know, it was, I think, closer than some people were thinking. But again, a district that was drawn in a way that gave Democrats a good chance but did favor Republicans. So, some people kind of unsurprised by the outcome.

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Sally Mauk Well, Rob, in a victory statement, Zinke said voters saw through the "vicious lies and deceit of my opponents." And in her concession speech, Tranel did not back down from her accusations about Zinke. Here's what she said.

"The fact of the election does not erase the corruption of Ryan Zinke. It does not erase the lies he told to cover up his corruption."

Sally Mauk So, Rob, that's not exactly a congratulations.

Rob Saldin No, it's not, Sally. It, I think, captures something about where we're at in Montana politics. You know, clearly these two don't like each other. And these were prepared remarks. This was not off-the-cuff stuff. You know, Zinke's statement struck me as pretty gratuitous for your big victory statement. You know, that sentence could have easily been omitted. They chose to put that in and get in one final dig. Even so, I suppose Tranel could have taken the high road and congratulated him and wished him well. But you know, that's also kind of hard to do right after you get called a vicious liar.

Sally Mauk Well, during the campaign, Rob, Tranel often talked about how she was able to reach out and connect with voters who were not her supporters. But she had a different anecdote about the campaign in her concession speech.

"We walked in parades where Democrats weren't expected and weren't welcome. I had people refused to shake my hand, who swore at me, who spit on me."

Sally Mauk It's not a feelgood campaign story, Rob.

Rob Saldin No, no doubt it's tough out there. Tranel clearly did reach out to people who disagreed with her. The extent to which that paid dividends in the election, I guess, is an open question. Clearly not enough for her to win, and yet that is what you've got to do if you're a Democrat in Montana. But when you do it, you're bound to have at least a handful of unpleasant experiences, particularly these days. You know, it strikes me Tranel ran a really strong campaign. She couldn't have worked any harder for this. She came up short. And that's got to be tough to, you know, as Holly was talking about, to see some of those turnout numbers in places like. Gallatin, Glacier. And yet still she overperformed relative to what Biden did two years ago, fell a few points short of how Bullock ran against Daines. Although Bullock is a two term governor, a household name, and she didn't have that going into this.

Sally Mauk Well Holly, in the eastern district, Republican Matt Rosendale cruised to victory, easily beating Democrat Penny Ronning and independent Gary Buchanan. And that race, I think, matched most people's predictions.

Holly Michels Yeah, I don't think there are many people surprised by this. Rosendale ended up taking 57% of the vote. Buchanan at 22%, Ronning came in at 20%. And like we talked about earlier, the western district was drawn to be a little bit more competitive for Democrats. This district, there was pretty broad acknowledgment that it was pretty safe Republican territory. The interesting thing people were watching on election night is, going into this, there was concern from both the Ronning and Buchanan camps that they'd work as spoilers to each other fighting for those votes. That the thought was if one of them combined, got all of it, that would be enough to beat Rosendale. But it didn't turn out that way. Rosendale got nearly 120,900 votes. Buchanan and Ronning between the two of them combined for a little bit more than 89,800. So even if you could assume that one candidate would have captured all the votes the other one did, still wouldn't have amounted to enough to beat Rosendale there. Rosendale won every county in that district. Ronning and Buchanan pretty roughly split where they came in second or third. Buchanan ended up with about 4,000 more votes than Ronning. So it does look like Montanans in that district, who didn't like Rosendale, were pretty divided between the other options. But it's just that there were far more Republican votes than any other candidate could overcome.

Sally Mauk Well Rob, Rosendale's easy win likely bolsters any further political ambitions he might have, like maybe to run for the Senate.

Rob Saldin Right Sally. Plenty of speculation that Rosendale wants another crack at the Senate in two years, and he's one of two obvious candidates. I think Tester is up again, and Republicans see that as a really good chance to flip a blue seat in a red state. Assuming Tester does run again, which seems very likely, you know, that's going to be one of the most watched Senate elections in the country. Of course, Rosendale might well have some competition for the GOP nomination, because Ryan Zinke is the other obvious candidate.

Sally Mauk Rob, LR-131, the so-called "Born Alive Infant Protection Act," was defeated 53% to 47%. And this was one of five victories around the country for supporters of legal abortion.

Rob Saldin Right Sally. Relatively easy six point win. One thing that caught my eye, there wasn't much of a drop off in terms of overall votes cast relative to those congressional races. The Gustafson-Brown Supreme Court election, by contrast, got significantly less votes total than LR-131. And Jim Rice's Supreme Court election, which which wasn't competitive, got way less still. So that just suggests to me that LR-131 was something that voters were clued in about. And of course, that does fit right in with what we saw nationally. Abortion was a big issue for voters. And in four other states, right, that they had ballot initiatives, every single one of those went in favor of protecting access. So Montana was in step with what we saw elsewhere.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly Republicans, as expected, won a supermajority in the Legislature, and that's going to be a tough session for Democrats.

Holly Michels I think it really will be a different type of session than we've seen, just because of the makeup here. So we're looking at it right now and understanding there's still some provisional ballots out there. There's one race that might go to recount for a House district, but looking at 34 Republicans in the Senate, 69 in the House. So that gives the party 103 seats, beating that threshold of 100. It also gives them a supermajority in both chambers. This would be the first supermajority that we've seen like this since we've had this type of setup for our state Legislature. Republicans are obviously celebrating this outcome. They're saying that this shows the issues they raised in their campaigns and past performance in previous sessions really resonated with voters.

Looking at what that session might be like, you know, the party isn't a monolith by any means, but this does give them a never-seen-before power to do things without any support from the other side of the aisle. I think we'll get a better idea when the session starts about what kind of things they might focus on. But looking at the governor's budget, if they agree with that, that can move very easily through. During the election, we talked a lot about the state Constitution and access to abortion. If Republicans can pass Constitutional amendments now without any Democratic support, that could aim to reshape abortion access in Montana. Of course, those would still go before voters. But again, this is power that a party really hasn't had before, and something we'll be watching really closely.

Democrats, you know, they tried to put as positive a spin on it as possible. They pointed to holding or flipping three districts where Trump won in 2020,as bright spots. But even in the same press release pointed out that they held six of those type of districts going into this election. So this is going to be a pretty interesting legislative session and it all gets started really soon, will be kicking off January 2nd. So we will be looking at it very quickly here.

Capitol Talk logo with an illustration of the state Capitol next to host Sally Mauk, reporter Holly Michels, and Political Science professor Rob Saldin
Get a recap of this week's action at the Montana Legislature with news and analysis from Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels. Online Friday afternoons. On air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, was there really any good news for Montana Democrats in this election, despite what their press releases say?

Rob Saldin Well, Sally, you know, the glass half empty story for Democrats would emphasize how far and how quickly the party has fallen. This looks like the trajectory of Idaho Democrats back in the '90s, or of North and South Dakota Democrats more recently. You know, Montana Democrats have zero statewide offices in Helena. They lost the new western congressional district despite having a good candidate who ran an outstanding campaign. It's just not at all clear that there is any Democrat, save Tester, who can win statewide. And to me, at least, the Gustafson and LR-131 results aren't even that reassuring necessarily, because they suggest that perhaps it's not so much Montanans are hostile to left-of-center policy, it's more that they're hostile to the Democratic Party brand.

Now the glass-half-full story is that, okay, yes Tranel lost, but she was a virtual unknown who was running against a very strong Republican who had all the advantages of incumbency. And despite that, it was still pretty close. You know, maybe she goes again in two years. And after all, Gianforte lost in his first run. So did Rosendale. And, you know, with this campaign under her belt, Tranel won't be a fresh face anymore. And Zinke, he maybe runs for Senate. It'll be an open seat, which would be a much easier lift. And of course, you've got Tester, a proven winner on the ballot in two years, which will bring in a lot of money and that should help Democrats down ballot. So, you know, both of those stories are plausible, Sally.

But where the Democrats optimistic vision crumbles, I think, is what Holly was just talking about. Look at the Legislature: Republican supermajority, there was a collapse in Great Falls, and so on. Now, maybe redistricting will help a little, but it's unlikely to be anything super dramatic. And that just suggests that, you know, even if Tester wins again in two years, and Tranel or whoever could carry the first district, that they do that kind of by defying gravity. And you can't count on that forever. So, big picture, Montana Democratic Party is is not in very good shape right now.

Sally Mauk Rob and Holly, with the election over, this is also our last Campaign Beat, and as usual, it's been such a pleasure to talk politics with you every week. Do you want to let the listeners know we'll be back on the air in January during the Legislature, talking politics again on Capital Talk. And I look forward to that, you guys.

Rob Saldin For sure. Thanks, Sally.

Holly Michels Me too. Thanks, Sally.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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