HELENA — Democratic candidates are scrambling to regain ground in the Montana State Legislature after historically blue strongholds turned red in the 2020 election.
Election officials are expected to send out ballots on Friday and primary candidates have less than a month to edge out their fellow party members for a chance to defeat an opponent in the general election. However, some races are already lost for the Democratic Party. In 28 of the 100 House races, no Democratic candidate ran. Of the 26 Senate races this election cycle, seven have no Democratic nominees. Republican candidates ran to run in every Senate race and failed to produce a nominee in just three House races.
If Republicans secure a total of 100 seats between the two chambers, the GOP will have the power to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. After a historic number of defeats in the 2020 election, Democratic candidates controlled 52 seats compared to 98 seats controlled by Republicans. Of Montana’s 50 Senate seats, 24 are not up for election this cycle.
The Democratic Party did everything wrong in the 2020 election, said Brad Hamlett, a longtime Democratic lawmaker from Great Falls who is running in the Democratic primary for the House 23 district, which includes part of Great Falls. Hamlett served as a state senator for Great Falls from 2009 to 2017 and served in the House from 2017 to 2021. In the 2020 election, he lost by a margin of 107 votes to Rep. Scot Kerns, R- Great Falls.
President Donald Trump’s popularity in Montana as well as campaign limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic contributed to the loss, Hamlett said.
“We were told not to go out in public, to talk and to shake hands,” Hamlett said.
Hamlett’s opponent in the primary, Melissa Smith, also ran in 2020 for a different seat in Great Falls. She echoed Hamlett’s comments about the stifling pandemic campaign. However, many voters she met seemed prepared to oppose Democratic candidates, she said.
“The national narrative came into Montana and really dominated,” Smith said. “And people weren’t really listening to what the Democrats were saying.”
Even in Montana’s bluest neighborhood, Democratic candidates are vying for the middle. Jacob Torgerson is running in the Democratic primary for House District 81, which includes Helena Center and Helena Valley. Torgerson is a student at Helena College, a Starbucks employee, and a part-time caretaker to his five younger siblings.
“I’m a progressive and I’m probably the most progressive Democrat in this primary honestly,” Torgerson said. “But I know we need to talk with the Republicans, whether we agree or not, and we need to let them know that we are looking for common ground.”
House District 81 includes Central Helena and Helena Valley and Democratic candidates have won the district in every election cycle for the past 10 years. Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, takes the seat but runs in District 82 from the neighboring house. Three Democratic candidates are running in the primary for the open seat.
First to file for the primary was Helena’s longtime resident Jake Troyer. Troyer has a strategic consulting firm doing electoral conservation work and he has taught as a substitute during the pandemic. Troyer also served as Director of Communications for the Labor Department of Industry during the Bullock administration.
“I spoke to thousands of voters across the district,” Troyer said. “And they’re ready for someone who isn’t extreme, more middle of the road, and wants to work together and cross the aisle.”
Melissa Romano was the last to run for the primaries. Romano is a Helena Educator and Montana’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. She gained statewide recognition when she ran and lost twice to Elsie Arntzen for Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The Legislative Assembly needs more intermediaries and someone who can bring people together, Romano said. When candidates talk about good-paying jobs and a good education for future Montana residents, people can find common ground, she said.
“We need a leader, House District 81 needs a leader, who can bridge the gap,” Romano said. “And walk through this split that was happening in the last legislative session.”
All five candidates said listening and knocking on doors would be essential for every Democratic candidate trying to win in a swing district. But, to regain its traditional base, the Democratic Party must also nurture that base, Hamlett said.
“The Democratic Party needs to learn to pay as much attention to people showering at the end of the day as they do at the beginning,” Hamlett said. “And it’s true, you have to get the workers to support you and to do that you have to support them.”
The upcoming session will be one of the most critical in Montana history, Hamlett said. Inflation is out of control, he said. Right now the most important thing is to get people through the next two years because they’re going to be tough, Hamlett said.
The primary election is scheduled for June 7 and the general election is scheduled for November 8.