Politics under the Big Sky
Not a battleground state, but Montana has its battles
By Rick Holmes
Sept. 1, 2017
Billings, Montana – The sky is indeed big here, almost uncomfortably big to those used to closer horizons. The landscape is big, too, with towering mountains and plains that stretch out as far as the eye can see.
Montana’s political influence is large as well, especially compared to the one thing that’s small here: the population.
Montana’s population is estimated at 1,042,520, making it the sixth smallest, ahead of Delaware, the Dakotas, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming. That works out to about seven people per square mile. Dallas has more residents than Montana.
Montana is one of seven states whose population limits them to one U.S. representative. The eyes of the political world turned briefly to Montana’ at-large House district in May, when Republican Greg Gianforte won a special election to fill Ryan Zinke’s seat after Zinke resigned to become Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior. Gianforte body-slammed a reporter the day before the election. He has since pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, but it’s unclear whether the incident hurt his vote or helped him.
But Montana speaks just as loudly as any state in the Senate. Montana’s million people get two senators, while California’s 38 million people get the same number, because that’s the way the Constitution works. That small-state advantage carries over into the Electoral College as well.
In presidential politics, Montana looks like a pillar at the northern end of the Republicans’ mountain states wall. Montana has voted Republican in all but one of the last 13 presidential elections.
But Montana is more complicated than that. Republicans are strongest in the flat eastern part of the state, Democrats in the mountainous west. Its cities – college towns Butte and Missoula, and Bozeman, where Hollywood heavies and other immigrants have bought homes – lean Democratic, as do Native Americans, who make up 6.3 percent of the population. Republicans are in firm control of the state Legislature. Trump swamped his GOP opponents in the 2016 Republican primary, while Bernie Sanders scored big with Democrats.
Its current governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, was elected after two terms by another popular Democrat, Brian Schweitzer. One of its two U.S. senators is a Democrat: Jon Tester, considered to be one of the Democrats whose re-election is most endangered as he seeks a third term.
There are national issues at play here. Bullock accepted expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Tester should have been a prime target for Trump and GOP leaders seeking to repeal Obamacare, but he stood by it. The program has proven popular, and 20 percent of the state’s residents are on Medicaid, which is a problem for repeal-and-replace Republicans.
Al Olszewski is one of those. One of a handful of Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge Tester, he still thinks Obamacare is an entitlement we can’t afford but is hard to take away. He says all Montanans are angry at Washington’s inability to get anything done. Trump’s support in the state is still strong, he said, despite a rough start: Trump won Montana by 20 points a year ago, but he’d still win by 12 if the election were held now.
“People say Trump must be flying over the right target, since he’s taking so much flak,” Olszewski said.
Donavon Hawk is one of those working to keep Tester in Washington. A member of the Crow Nation, he’s focusing on increasing voter turnout among Native Americans, which is traditionally low. That includes fighting moves by the GOP-controlled Legislature to make it harder to cast a ballot on Montana’s far-flung reservations.
I found Olszewski staffing a Republican Party booth at MontanaFair, the state’s biggest farm-and-fun fest. I found Hawk behind a table at the annual Crow Fair Pow Wow. Political types always talk about the importance of grassroots organizing and reaching out to every voter.
But the Democrats had no booth at the MontanaFair, at least not on the two days I was there, and the Republicans had no table at the Pow Wow. Both sides play to their base.
Then there’s Tom Walls, who I found at his Native American arts, souvenirs and junk shop in tiny Hot Springs. A sign reading “Proud Liberal” hangs behind the counter, and he’s ready to tangle on any topic. A third-generation Montanan, he considers Gianforte a “billionaire carpet-bagger,” and complains about rich people walling off public lands for their private amusement. He warns of an attempt by alt-right extremists to take over Flathead County.
As for politicians, “I’d just as soon shoot them all, from dogcatcher on up,” he said. “The only one I care to hear anything from is Bernie Sanders.”
Not everyone under the Big Sky shares his political preferences, but I expect a lot of them share his attitude.