HELENA — Democratic candidates are jostling to regain ground in the Montana State Legislature after historically blue strongholds turned red during the 2020 Election.
Election officials are expected to mail ballots out Friday and primary candidates have less than a month to edge out their fellow party members for the chance to defeat a General Election opponent. However, some races are already lost for the Democratic Party. In 28 out of 100 House races, no Democratic candidate filed. Out of the 26 Senate races this election cycle, seven have no Democratic candidate. Republican candidates filed to run in every single Senate race and failed to produce a candidate in just three House races.
If Republicans gain a total of 100 seats between the two chambers, the GOP will have the power to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. Of Montana’s 50 Senate seats, 24 are not up for election this cycle. After a historic number of losses in the 2020 Election, Democratic candidates controlled 52 seats versus the 98 seats Republicans controlled.
"The Democratic Party did everything wrong in that campaign," said Brad Hamlett, a longtime Democratic legislator out of Great Falls who is running in the Democratic primary for House District 23, which includes part of Great Falls. Hamlett was a State Senator for Great Falls from 2009 to 2017, and served in the House from 2017 to 2021. During the 2020 Election, he lost by a 107-vote margin to Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls.
The popularity in Montana of President Donald Trump as well as the limitations put on campaigning by the coronavirus pandemic contributed to the loss, Hamlett said.
“We were told not to go out in public and talk and shake hands,” Hamlett said.
Hamlett’s opponent in the primary, Melissa Smith, also ran in 2020 for a different House seat in Great Falls. She echoed Hamlett’s comments about the pandemic stifling campaigning. However, many voters she ran into seemed primed to oppose Democratic candidates, she said.
“The national narrative came into Montana and really dominated,” Smith said. “And people weren’t listening really to what Democrats were saying.”
Even in Montana’s bluest district, Democratic candidates are racing for the middle. Jacob Torgerson is running in the Democratic Primary for House District 81, which includes Central Helena and the Helena Valley. Torgerson is a Helena College student, Starbucks employee and part-time caretaker of 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 that we have got to go talk with Republicans regardless of whether we agree, and we got to let them know that we’re looking for middle ground.”
House District 81 includes Central Helena and the Helena Valley and Democratic candidates have won the district every election cycle for the past 10 years. Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, holds the seat but is running in neighboring House District 82. Three Democratic candidates are running in the primary for the open seat.
The first to file for the primary was longtime Helena resident Jake Troyer. Troyer owns a strategic consulting doing conservation electoral work and he substitute taught during the pandemic. Troyer also served as communications director for the Department of Labor of Industry during the Bullock administration.
“I’ve spoken to thousands of voters across the district,” Troyer said. “And they’re ready for someone who is not extreme, more middle of the road, and wanting to work together and reach across the aisle.”
Melissa Romano was the last to file for the primary. Romano is a Helena educator and Montana’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. She gained statewide recognition when she twice ran and lost against Elsie Arntzen for Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The Legislature needs more of the middle and someone who can bring people together, Romano said. When candidates talk about good paying jobs and a good education for future Montanans, people can find common ground, she said.
“We need a leader, House District 81 needs a leader, who can bridge the divide,” Romano said. “And cross that divisiveness that was happening in the last Legislative session.”
All five candidates said listening and knocking doors would be critical for every Democratic candidate trying to win in a swing district. But, to regain its traditional base, the Democratic Party needs to also take care of that base, Hamlett said.
“The Democrat party needs to learn to pay as much attention to the people that take their shower at the end of the day as the beginning,” Hamlett said. “And that’s true, you have to get the working people to support you and to do that you have to support them.”
The coming session is going to be one of the most critical in Montana history, Hamlett said. Inflation is out of hand, he said. Right now, the most important thing is to get people through the next couple of years, because they’re going to be tough, Hamlett said.
The primary election is scheduled for June 7 and the General Election is set for Nov. 8.