Montana Democrats are having to reconcile with a sweeping defeat in the 2020 election that knocked them out of every statewide office. They also lost seats in the legislature and failed to win contests for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
When election results started rolling in on Nov. 3, University of Montana student Clara McRae was still at the Missoula County Courthouse. She had already voted, but wanted to make sure people waiting in line stayed there after the 8 p.m. deadline to cast their ballot.
McCrae grew up in Helena and now studies political science and history at UM, where she was a campus organizer for Democrats.
She thought the races were going to be tight, but Democrats ended up losing every statewide position on the ballot by eight points or more.
McCrae said it was pretty devastating.
“I think we had put a lot of stock into this sort of legendary independent streak of the Montana voter with split-tickets and people voting for the person not the party. And I don’t think any of us expected it to be such a Republican sweep,” McCrae said.
Montana politics have long had streaks of purple - sending members of both parties to Congress in recent election cycles and electing Democratic governors with Republican majorities in the statehouse.
But that split ticket voting didn’t show up in 2020.
In a statement after the election, Executive Director of the Montana Democratic Party Sandi Luckey said "Montana faces serious challenges, and Montana Democrats will continue to meet them head on — as we always have." Luckey was unavailable for an interview for this story.
In a post-election analysis on MTPR’s Campaign Beat, political scientist Rob Saldin said this years’ losses could be hard for Democrats to come back from.
He chalked up the party’s defeats to Republicans' successful work in nationalizing the election by linking state Democrats to figures like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and national proposals, like defunding the police.
“It was a terrible night for Democrats, 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,” Saldin said.
AshLee Strong, a Montana Republican strategist, says that national Republican messaging struck a chord with Montanans, while national Democratic priorities proved polarizing.
“Democrats were tied to a national party agenda that was extreme to say the least, especially for Montana, policies like defunding the police and additional gun control and socialism," Strong said. "These national party policies were front and center here in Montana and Montanans just soundly rejected those.”
Strong says Republicans appealed to voters by talking about jobs and the economy.
She noted that Democrats lost support in places where they traditionally do well, like Cascade County.
Democrat Jasmine Krotkov of Great Falls lost re-election to the House of Representatives this year.
Krotkov said she worked on infrastructure legislation during the 2019 session and wanted to run on the success she had. Instead, she said voters wanted to talk about the failures of Congress and Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.
“I’m not sure if it had, how much it had to do with COVID and how much it had to do with the just avalanche of misinformation and disinformation that was coming at voters, that they were not interested in talking about policy so much,” Krotkov said.
How Republican wins and Democratic losses turn into state policy change will likely be seen in the upcoming 2021 legislative session scheduled to start in January.
Democrats lost 10 seats in the statehouse.
Rep. Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, was elected House Minority Leader by her peers.
“Election results have consequences and ours is that we’re dealing with fewer members. But, you know, we have a lot of talent, we have a lot of experience working across the aisle in a bipartisan way,” Abbott said.
The political map in Montana often looks like a red sea with blue islands. The red sea is the wide rural parts of the state that support Republicans. Those islands of blue are often more urban towns and Native American communities.
Keaton Sunchild, who’s Chippewa-Cree, is political director for Western Native Voice. The nonprofit group works to empower Native voters in Montana.
“To win in these rural areas and to win these voting blocs like Native Americans, we have to, Democrats have to show up and make an effort not just when it’s convenient for them. And I’m not saying that the candidates who lost didn’t do that, but I think on a broader scale that needs to be probably priority one,” Sunchild said.
UM student and campus organizer Clara McRae has similar thoughts about the Democratic Party's future.
“I think that in most communities Montana already has a really incredible framework of people who are on the ground in most counties working for progressive change, particularly the young people, and Black and Indigenous, people of color, so I think what Democrats need to do is just invest in these organizers year-round.”