May 27, 2023

GOP lawmakers target Tester re

The Montana state Capitol in Helena.

The last Democrat occupying a statewide office in Montana may have an even tighter path to re-election in 2024, under legislation advanced by Republican state lawmakers Monday night.

Senate Bill 566 would establish a top-two primary election for U.S. Senate next year, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is up for re-election. It passed an initial vote 27-23 with no Democratic support on Monday, and must clear a final vote in the Senate to move to the House.

It would establish a version of a “jungle primary,” in which every candidate, regardless of party, runs in the same primary election. The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, meaning third parties would almost certainly be kept off the ballot.

Democrats decried the bill as a “partisan power grab,” targeting just one specific race in just one specific election, as the bill would sunset the following year and applies to no other races. The race is widely anticipated to be the most expensive and one of the most-watched in Montana history. Tester is considered one of the two or three most vulnerable Democrats in the GOP’s quest to retake the Senate.

“This is just brazen partisanship, targeting a single race,” said Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade. “This isn’t fair, this isn’t what Montanans want. They don’t want one-party rule, they want us to have fair elections."

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said his bill is only meant to ensure whoever wins the election must get the support of a majority of Montana voters. It will only apply to the Senate, he said, because of the importance of the office and the six-year term length. And Hertz said it will sunset in 2025 because it’s a “test run,” to see how the voters like the proposal before applying it more widely.

“These are six-year terms, and to me if we are going to send someone to Washington, D.C., they should have the majority support of our voters,” Hertz said.

If history is any guide, Tester’s race is likely to be close. Tester is seeking a fourth term, and two of his three elections to the seat were won with less than 50% of the vote. In both of them, the Libertarian candidate drew enough votes to potentially swing the race. The Libertarian Party is the only third party that consistently qualifies for the ballot in Montana, and is typically believed to draw more votes away from Republicans than Democrats.

Hertz referred to those two razor-thin Senate elections, along with one from 1996, to build the case for a history of Senate races being decided by less than half the voters. But Flowers noted that since the last time that happened, in 2012, there have been three Senate races. The victor won by a majority each time, including Tester’s last re-election in 2018.

When the bill was first heard in the Senate State Administration Committee last week, Montana Libertarian Party Chair Sid Daoud argued it would effectively deny his party the opportunity to give the public the chance to learn about its views.

“As this bill sunsets after the next U.S. Senate race, it is specifically drafted to eliminate any participation in that specific election except for the big two parties, enhancing the stranglehold on the two-party system," Daoud said.

The bill also had supporters, including the Montana Republican Party and the Montana Department of Justice.

SB 566 was one of two bills debated on Monday that carry clear implications for Tester’s re-election bid — both heard at the end of a nearly 10-hour floor session in the upper chamber. Senate Bill 565, also sponsored by Hertz, would take aim at the ability of third parties to qualify for the ballot in the first place.

Third parties can currently qualify for the ballot in Montana in two ways. They must either have won enough votes equal to 5% of the winner in either of the past two gubernatorial races, or they must collect signatures from that many voters.

Hertz’s bill would ratchet that signature requirement up to 5% of the total number of registered voters in the state or district, depending on what type of office is being sought. He argued the current requirements are too lax.

“I fully support third parties, but I believe in order to do that, they need to meet a certain threshold,” Hertz said.

He added that in recent years, “both major parties are weaponizing our third-party candidates.” Republicans have paid signature gatherers to help qualify the Green Party for the ballot, widely seen as an attempt to siphon votes away from Democratic candidates. And an outside group supporting Tester financed a series of TV ads promoting the Libertarian candidate in his 2012 campaign.

One of Hertz's fellow Republicans argued that isn’t a reason to punish third parties by doubling their signature requirements.

“They don’t ask to be weaponized, and they don’t ask to go out and spend their life gathering signatures,” Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, said.

Other Republicans supported the idea, for different reasons. Sen. Wendy McKamey of Great Falls said the bill “absolutely supports third parties,” while Sen. John Fuller of Kalispell argued that entrenching the two-party system “is a good thing that has prevailed over the years.”

As with Hertz’s other bill, Democrats were united against it.

“I believe in freedom and fairness, and I don’t think this bill supports freedom and I don’t think it’s fair to our third parties,” Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said.

The bill passed 28-22, with some Republicans voting against it. It also still needs a final vote, expected on Tuesday.

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State Bureau Reporter

Up against a transmittal deadline, lawmakers acted on dozens of bills Monday in the House and Senate.

An amendment must secure the votes of two-thirds of the 150 lawmakers across both chambers in order to pass the Legislature.

The bill was the Montana Home Ownership Means Economic Security, or HOMES, Act.

Lawmakers took scores of final votes on legislation on the last day before a transmittal deadline for revenue bills.

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