Montana GOP Looks to Change Rules in US Senate Contest

April 17, 2023 by Dan McCue
Montana GOP Looks to Change Rules in US Senate Contest
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaking at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

HELENA, Mont. — A bill moving through the Republican-led Legislature in Montana would rewrite the rules for a single electoral contest in 2024 — the party’s uphill battle to take down three-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

“This bill is part of a poorly veiled attempt to consolidate one party rule in the state,” said Dr. David Parker, head of the political science department at Montana State University.

In an email to The Well News, Parker went on to say the bill sponsored by state Sen. Greg Hertz, is “part of a broader assault on the independence of the judiciary, the state’s Constitution, and voter access.”

Tester, a third-generation Montana farmer and former schoolteacher, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, after serving for seven years in the state senate, the last two, as the chamber’s president.

Even with his name recognition within the state, he won his first bid for the U.S. Senate by just one percentage point over then-incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican. 

He most recently won reelection in 2018 in a state that gave former President Donald Trump a 20-point margin of victory over former Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton just two years earlier.

Despite that performance, the GOP in recent months has consistently cited Tester as among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents heading into 2024, ranking him alongside fellow moderates, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz.

Among the Republicans said to be interested in making a run for Tester’s seat are former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is now 100 days into his first term in Congress, and Rep. Matt Rosendale, who was elected to Congress in 2000.

Hertz’s bill would rewrite the rules for the state’s next U.S. Senate race, transforming it from a traditional winner-take-all contest to a “top two” primary system, which would make it difficult for third-party candidates to reach the general election ballot.

The reason this is important in Montana is because the state is one of the few that actually has a healthy third party — the Libertarians — who typically siphon votes from the Republican nominee.

Hertz has said he has valid reasons for introducing the bill. The first, he has said, is to ensure that whoever Montana’s next senator is, he’s elected with more than 50% of the vote.

Secondly, he’s said he also wants to curb the practice of parties interfering in elections by surreptitiously supporting third-party candidates to dilute the vote and ensure an outcome in their favor.

Among those coming out against the bill is Republican state Sen. Brad Molnar, who has predicted the bill will ultimately backfire and send angry Libertarians running to the Democrats.

“They will be angry. Why wouldn’t they be? I’m not a Libertarian, and I’m angry,” Molnar told The New York Times last week.

The Well News attempted to contact Tester, Hertz and Molnar and Montana’s Democratic, Republican and Libertarian Parties about the bill, but did not receive any responses from them.

But to Parker, the intent of the bill is clear.

“You have only to look at the fact that this bill applies to one race only, with a sunset of 2025, to understand this is a pure power play rather than a substantive reform of the state’s elections system,” he said, adding, “I’m sadly not surprised.” 

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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