The Perfect Enemy | ‘We’re gonna compete’: Dems emphasize importance of legislative races
August 17, 2022

‘We’re gonna compete’: Dems emphasize importance of legislative races

‘We’re gonna compete’: Dems emphasize importance of legislative races  Independent Record

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EAST HELENA — On a hot summer day, Mary Ann Dunwell gears up in hiking boots, a fanny pack around her waist and visor on her head.

Dunwell is a seasoned state legislator who’s represented Montana House District 84 for the last eight years. In 2014, she decided to run so she could help pass Medicaid expansion in Montana — a measure that became law during her freshman session in 2015.

Dunwell’s known as a more progressive legislator in the House. In the 2017, 2019 and 2021 sessions, she carried bills aimed at increasing Montana’s minimum wage, none of which passed. She’s also carried a number of bills regarding mental health and while some have been signed into law, many others have died either in process or in committee.

“I do introduce progressive policies because it moves things forward and that’s important,” Dunwell said.

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Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell talks with a voter

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell talks with a voter while knocking doors on Thursday in East Helena.

This year if Dunwell doesn’t hold Senate District 42 in Democratic hands, hers could be one of the two seats Republicans need to flip in order to obtain a supermajority. The district includes the east side of Helena, the town of East Helena and the southeast part of the valley.

That commanding margin already exists in the House, thanks to Republicans picking up nine seats in 2020.

“We just can’t get a supermajority (of Republicans),” Dunwell said, adding that if it does happen, she thinks Republicans will have no incentive left to work with Democrats.

What’s at stake

Back in March, the Montana Democratic Party held a press conference at their headquarters in an early 1900s brick home across the street from the original governor’s mansion, now a tourist site.

The filing period for legislative seats had closed days earlier, and the GOP was already walking away with nearly 20 guaranteed seats, as no Democrats had filed in those races.

In response to a question about what the candidates gathered thought was at risk if the party lost seats, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, of Helena, did not hesitate.

“The Constitution is at stake,” Abbott said. “Montana voters for many, many decades have shown that they like divided government. They like Republicans, Democrats to work together. And what we are facing this cycle is a super majority. That could change our (right to) privacy or right to a (clean and healthful) environment, change the right to a quality education. And that’s serious. We’re gonna get out and we’re gonna compete for every vote to protect that.”

Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, speaks at a press event at the state capitol

Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, speaks at a press event at the state Capitol on July 28, hosted by Democrat legislators. The legislators introduced a four-point platform proposal to allocate $1 billion dollars of the state’s budget $1.7 billion surplus.

Sen. Pat Flowers, a Belgrade Democrat, said it was “poignant” that this year’s election fell on the same year as the 50th anniversary of Montana’s Constitution.

It’s a progressive document, with things like privacy provisions the state Supreme Court cited in 1999 to uphold the right to access a pre-viability abortion in Montana. And that’s made it a target for some Republicans who, if thwarted in their efforts to overturn 23 years of court precedent, might look to the Constitution as the place to make changes. One GOP legislator, who isn’t returning in 2023, has labeled it a “socialist rag” and called for throwing it out.

“We’re concerned for good reason that it’s going to remain intact. So I think that’s what’s at stake: a clean and healthful environment, the right to privacy, some of the fundamentals that we hold so dear in the state, and we can’t let that slip away,” Flowers said.

Holding a supermajority means Republicans would have the ability to pass legislative referendums to let voters decide about proposed changes to the state Constitution.

If Democrats lose seats, especially in the Senate, changes to the state Constitution could be on the table, said Jessi Bennion, a political scientist who works at Montana State University and Carroll College.

“There’s talk about trying to work on our Constitution in the way that they (Republicans) want if they have enough members,” Bennion said. “I know that’s something Democrats also use and are running on.”

The Republican Party, Bennion said, likely sees its big wins in the 2020 election as a mandate to enforce these policies. If 2023 sees more Republican control, Bennion thinks it will be a more conservative session and the bills put forth will follow that trend.

The GOP’s new platform, settled on July 16, could act as an indicator for the 2023 legislative session. It includes support for a complete ban on elective abortion and a push for hand-counting all ballots in Montana elections.

“The more of a majority that Republicans have, they’ll be able to do any sort of legislative move they’ve ever thought about,” Bennion said. “With a Republican governor that will sign it, the only question will be what the Montana Supreme Court looks like and how they will rule on the constitutionality of those new bills.”

On the doors

The makeup of Montana’s Senate in 2021 was 31 Republicans and 19 Democrats. Senate District 42, where Dunwell is running, is currently represented by Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour. It’s been in Democratic hands since 2014, but Cohenour — a lawmaker with a different approach than Dunwell — is termed out of running for re-election to the seat and is running for the House.

In the Senate, Cohenour’s been more moderate, carrying bills on environmental issues. In each of her terms in the Senate, around half the bills Cohenour carried have passed, even with Republican majorities.

The Montana State Senate

The Montana Senate gathers on the Senate floor on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in the state Capitol. 

Still, SD 42 went for Democratic President Joe Biden with nearly 54% of their votes in 2020, and also picked former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who beat Bullock statewide by 10 points. 

And Dunwell’s constituency in HD 84 sent her back four times. In her first race, she beat a moderate Republican incumbent after redistricting which removed Montana City from the district. She said she views her wins as proof progressive policies can win over Montana voters.

Nearly every day since January, Dunwell’s knocked on doors in SD 42. Her goal: Talk to every voter in the district. 

The Democrats’ system, MiniVAN, allows party leadership to create lists of people based on their former voting records, Dunwell explained to people who answered their doors. They’re marked in the system on a scale from strong Democrats to strong Republicans.

Dunwell asks for her list to include people on both ends of the scale, and every affiliation in between. She doesn’t usually use talking points either. Instead, she converses with people about their families, their gardens, their concerns.

“I think it’s important to meet people and talk to them because I work for them,” Dunwell said.

And the people talk back. Dunwell’s constituents tell her about their service in the military, childcare and housing.

One woman, who asked that her name be withheld, talked to Dunwell about her husband. He was in the hospital for heart problems, and tested positive for COVID-19. She hadn’t seen him for over a week. Dunwell shared how her husband passed away from cancer years before, and hugged her.

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell walk down the street

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell walk down the street while knocking doors on Thursday in East Helena.

When Dunwell goes home, the communication doesn’t stop. She takes meticulous notes in MiniVAN whenever someone answers the door and talks with her, and writes each person a handwritten note thanking them for the conversation.

“It’s that personal touch that matters to people,” Dunwell said. “I want to represent them, and I want to get bill ideas from them. But it’s also just who I am. My family calls me ‘the birthday card sister.’”

Usually picking up votes doesn’t matter to her as much as what people talk to her about, Dunwell said. But this year, things are different.

Origins of a supermajority

Thanks to a red wave, four of the seats Republicans picked up from 2018 to 2020 came out of Cascade County.

But some of the area’s Democrats who lost in those races are running again in 2022. And according to political scientist Kal Munis of Utah Valley University, the seats in Cascade County — combined with the Conservative Solutions Caucus’ willingness to break with the Republican Party — can stop what he deemed “out-of-control” policies.

Jasmine Krotkov is one of those candidates. She used to be the editor for the National Association of Postmasters, but got involved in politics by chance. When a friend talked about running, she decided to run too. She represented HD 25, an area in Great Falls, during the 2019 legislative session.

Rep. Jasmine Krotkov, D-Great Falls

Rep. Jasmine Krotkov, D-Great Falls.

Krotkov said she saw a difference as she campaigned in 2020 compared to 2018. In her first bid, Krotkov said she knocked thousands of doors. When she showed up and talked to people, they often told her they’d vote for her, regardless of her party.

But two years later, that changed drastically. She said people yelled at her when she knocked on their doors. The second she told people she was a Democrat, Krotkov was compared to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House — even though she was campaigning on local issues.

“That race was very nationalized. There was an ambient fear around,” Krotkov said. 

Still, Krotkov decided to run again this year, even after losing her election by 6 points in 2020. In 2018 she won by just 125 votes.

Krotkov said she felt like Montanans weren’t listened to during the last legislative session, adding that the reason democracy works is because it includes everybody.

“That whole messy process of democracy is important. And a Legislature with a supermajority of either party isn’t doing that,” Krotkov said.

This year, Krotkov said things have still been nationalized, but to a lesser degree. She said she has no idea what the election will hold, but she’s focused on running a good campaign and ensuring people feel like she’s listening to them.

Last session

Several of the bills in 2021 that drew the sharpest criticism from Democrats were bills that passed on party lines and have now been challenged in court.

That included House Bill 102, which significantly expanded where firearms may be carried concealed both with and without a permit. In June the Montana Supreme Court unanimously ruled against a portion of the law which sought to allow firearms on Montana’s University campuses, finding that the power belongs to the Board of Regents rather than the Legislature. Other bills include a series of anti-abortion laws that are now on hold and a group of laws about elections, among others. The court cases are at various stages.

The Montana GOP treasurer, Derek Skees, said at the GOP banquet on July 14 that the party needs to continue building on its success from the last two years. He highlighted Republicans’ work in the Legislature regarding anti-abortion efforts, strengthening gun rights and banning vaccine passports in Montana.

Montana Legislature

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, talks with fellow legislators during a break during the 2021 session in the State Capitol.

Building on these efforts, Skees said, requires Republican wins in November. He emphasized the goal that Republicans will win both U.S. congressional seats, and maintain control of the state Legislature.

“We all know that in the primary Republicans showed up for the polls,” Skees said. “It’s no secret that our success and momentum has continued to prove Montana is a red state and that our conservative values are Montana values.”

Skees lost in a tight four-way GOP primary for a seat on the Public Service Commission in June.

Building solutions

Another group that’s shrunk in their numbers is a group of Republicans that call themselves the Conservative Solutions Caucus. That caucus made news in the 2015 legislative session by joining with minority Democrats to pass Medicaid expansion. That year had a GOP majority but the governor was Bullock, a Democrat.

Over the last several years, and sometimes to the vocal consternation of Republicans to their right, the caucus has at times worked with Democrats in a bipartisan group that when aligned served as the Legislature’s biggest voting bloc.

Frank Garner, a Republican from Kalispell who has been in the House the last eight years, was a member of the caucus. 

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell,

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, speaks on the House floor on April 29, 2021.

He said the Conservative Solutions Caucus consists of Republicans — some moderate and some “ardently conservative” — willing to work within their own party and across the aisle for solutions on some of Montana’s most important issues. Garner said he believes collaboration is key.

“I think one of the goals of the majority is to protect the rights of the minority,” Garner said. “It doesn’t mean we agree with all of their positions.”

For example, Garner voted with the majority of his party 91% of the time in 2021, compared to voting with the majority of Democrats 67% of the time, according to the Montana Free Press’s vote tracker.

Garner’s 67% record of voting with Democrats was among the highest for his Republican counterparts. Only Reps. Tom Welch (HD 72), Geraldine Custer (HD 39) and Brian Putnam (HD 9) had on-par or higher records of voting with the Democrats.

With communities across the state in need of different things, Garner said it’s legislators’ responsibility to listen to each other, even if they don’t agree all the time. And sometimes, it means crossing the aisle and voting with the minority.

This view isn’t necessarily one held by all the members of Garner’s party, though. According to reporting from the Montana Free Press, some far-right legislators called for their Solutions Caucus counterparts’ removal after they formed a bloc with Democrats to continue Medicaid expansion in 2019. Some caucus members have faced challenges in primaries, with mixed results.

Bennion said when you look at the type of Republican candidate winning in Montana, it is those who are more far-right. And even if Dems do pick up a few seats this year, like Krotkov’s, and hold the line with others, like Dunwell’s, they’re not likely to win control of the Legislature.

“People are much more strongly partisan and they will vote, when they get their ballot, up and down for one party,” Bennion said. “They rarely will vote Republican for governor, a Democrat for Senate, when they used to do that.”

Mariah Thomas can be reached at mariah.thomas@helenair.com

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