Oh, how fickle we voters are. Two years after giving Democrats near-complete control over the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government in the name of "change," we turn around and, in the House of Representatives, swing power back to the Republicans who incited voters' call for change in the first place. It's enough to make any political observer wonder if the seemingly schizophrenic American electorate needs a collective head exam.
In any event, after netting 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate last Tuesday, on top of winning an untold number of local and state races around the country, Republicans are partying like it's, well, 1994, when the party took 54 House seats. And as in 1994, this historic clobbering will have huge implications, from the Bitteroot to the Beltway.
In Montana, the most critical of those consequences will play out in Helena beginning in January, when the state Legislature convenes with Republicans controlling both the Senate and House chambers. Republicans gained 18 seats in the House—the biggest swing since 1964—and one seat in the Senate, nearly overriding Gov. Brian Schweitzer's veto power.
In this, the Indy's election postmortem, we try to make sense of what happened, and what's likely to happen as a result—while bracing ourselves for whatever we volatile voters might do next.
Ravalli County's bulletproof Republican ticket
by Alex Sakariassen
Ravalli County Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff spent last Thursday evening lamenting the results of the Nov. 2 election over beers with a number of others from the courthouse in Hamilton. Grandstaff, an Independent, lost her seat to Republican Suzy Foss, but she spent little time licking her own wounds. The real topic of concern was the upset in the county treasurer race that saw incumbent JoAnne Johnson trumped by her Republican opponent, Mary Hudson-Smith, whose campaign amounted to a couple of newspaper ads.
For Grandstaff, that upset shows Bitterroot voters were looking not for candidates' qualifications but for the "R" next to their names. All 14 candidates on the Republican ticket there won by wide margins.
"There's a little bit of thinking that this is what the voters wanted, that they had no idea what they were voting for and now they're going to get it," Grandstaff says. "It wasn't very smart to not look into what that job entails, who does it, what is the challenger's experience, what's her level of ability. Those questions were never asked."
But there's a twist. Ravalli County employees have always known the Republican victor—who has worked in the treasurer's office for 15 years—to be an outspoken Democrat. In a July letter to the editor in the Ravalli Republic, Deputy Treasurer Tami Kay Morgan wrote that Hudson-Smith was "running on the Republican side of the ticket for one reason—to run unopposed against our current county treasurer JoAnne Johnson." Even Johnson, who trained Hudson-Smith personally, says she's never known her political rival to lean any direction but left.
Hudson-Smith shrugs off the alleged duplicity. "I haven't considered myself anything actually, but when it came to having to run, you can't very well run nonpartisan," Hudson-Smith says. "You have to choose something."
Hudson-Smith's unsuspected triumph seems a direct result of the county GOP's highly successful election cycle message: "Vote Republican." According to the Ravalli County Elections Office, roughly 61 percent of the valley's registered voters turned out to cast their ballots, and few candidates on the left managed to secure more than 40 percent of the vote.
"It's Nancy Pelosi," Grandstaff says, chalking up the election results to national frustrations. "I'm not being a smart-ass. There weren't any real issues that people were rallying around. There were a few people making noises about zoning, but we abandoned that in 2008 and never worked towards it again. That was just not an issue. This was a nationwide Republican blitz, and we got caught up in it."
However, Terry Nelson, chairman of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee, credits the tidal wave of conservative victories not just to anti-Democrat sentiment stirred up by current national leaders but to rising local concerns over property rights. With the recent expiration of a moratorium on the county's contentious growth policy, the incoming commissioners will likely see the issue return to the fore. There's no question land-use planning issues will continue to dominate the political dialogue in Ravalli County. But with no seated Democrats on the commission, property issues will almost certainly be addressed with the conservative intent of lightening government regulations.
"Anything land-use planning in Ravalli County is going to be big, and it's going to continue to be big," says Republican Matt Kanenwisher, who defeated incumbent Democrat Kathleen Driscoll with more than 60 percent of the vote.
The unchecked Republican presence on the new commission is a major concern of Grandstaff's for exactly that reason. In November 2006, voters passed a $10,000 open lands program designed to secure conservation easements on private property in the Bitterroot. The bond has funded five conservation easements in the past two years, yet all three incoming commissioners have publicly voiced opposition to the program.
"Why people would vote for people opposed to this program that was passed by voters in 2006 and has been wildly successful...is beyond me," Grandstaff says. "We had people in the office [Monday] who were scrambling to get their conservation easement completed before Dec. 31. This is like their mother's ranch, and they're really worried. They've done all this work, they've put all this effort into it and they're afraid now that it's just going to get denied. They're not the only ones."
Yet for Grandstaff and others, the real apprehension comes back to Hudson-Smith and her new duties as county treasurer—which include oversight of both the tax office, where she currently works, and the motor vehicle office. The treasurer's estimated annual budget is around $350 million. Grandstaff voices serious reservations about Hudson-Smith's qualifications, and Johnson points out that prior to filing for candidacy, Hudson-Smith had been the subject of disciplinary action within the treasurer's office for rude and borderline insubordinate behavior.
Hudson-Smith acknowledges the disciplinary action, but says the matter was a misunderstanding stemming from tax season in November 2009. And she insists she's experienced enough to take on the treasurer's responsibilities.
"I pretty much know the background, and I just thought I needed a challenge and I thought I had something to offer," Hudson-Smith says.
The shock of Hudson-Smith's victory stems in part from her extremely low-profile campaign. She says she ran only two ads in local newspapers, distributed no signs and offered no speeches. The Ravalli County GOP chairman, Nelson, says he personally invited Hudson-Smith to two separate candidate forums during campaign season. She never showed.
Hudson-Smith says her lack of campaign activity was due to a long list of financial and family difficulties that arose over the course of the year.
"I was pretty quiet about the whole thing," Hudson-Smith says. "I just didn't have the funds to do the campaigning I wanted to. This has been a bad year money-wise for me and my family."
Nelson doesn't share in the concerns over Hudson-Smith's qualifications or her previous disciplinary issues. Instead, he points to her victory over a Democratic incumbent as another example of how unbeatable Ravalli County's Republican ticket truly was.
"I'm certainly not going to say the public wasn't educated when they went out and voted," Nelson says. "I think they were educated to know which party stood for what values, and voted for the Republican Party."
Celebration short-lived for two rookie progressives
by Jessica Mayrer
Democratic candidate for House District 92 Bryce Bennett sipped a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy at the Central Bar & Grill in Missoula on election night. As the evening wore on and polling places closed, the 25-year-old breathed a bit easier as he saw his lead over Republican challenger Don Harbaugh grow. When eventually it became clear that he won the race by more than 100 votes, he was exuberant.
"There were some nervous hours," he says. "But we were very excited to come out on top at the end of the night."
However, that excitement was tempered as, one by one, Bennett watched many of his fellow Democratic candidates lose to their Republican counterparts.
"We really thought that we had a lot of great opportunities and some incredible candidates that we thought could do pretty well this year," Bennett says. "Some of the election results were pretty shocking. Butte and some of these reservation seats, some of the more progressive areas, Helena as well—it was pretty startling to see Republican victories in some of the most progressive or, at least, Democratic areas."
Bennett is acutely aware that each Democratic loss will constitute an additional degree of difficulty for progressives heading into Montana's 2011 Legislative Session. Democratic priorities, like boosting school funding, making sure that money continues flowing from state coffers into children's health care and implementing statewide protections for homosexuals will be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, to achieve in light of last Tuesday's election.
"It's going to be very difficult," Bennett says. "The people who were elected to the majority were very clear about their beliefs. They're not supporters of equality under the law. They don't believe that our education system needs more funding. These are the same folks that tried to cut children's health care in 2009. It's pretty obvious that they have an extreme agenda. And it's going to be difficult to move forward some progressive ideas, but that doesn't mean we're not going to try."
House District 94's rookie legislator, Democrat Ellie Hill, knew before Election Day that she was on her way to Helena, having beat out her only challenger, Lou Ann Crowley, in Montana's primary election months earlier. That didn't dim her excitement as she made plans—and began drawing lines in the sand—with her liberal compadres while celebrating at the Central.
"We're going to have to fight like hell to save children's health insurance and make sure that they don't make cuts to our education funding," Hill says. "I am a passionate believer in mental health services, and I know that those are on the chopping block...Defense will have to be the best offense that we have."
It's clear that accomplishing anything on the progressive agenda this legislative session will be a daunting task. But Hill says her arrival in Helena this January alongside Bennett, the state's first openly gay legislator, in and of itself constitutes a significant achievement.
"We're fundamental believers that the Legislature our founding mothers and fathers envisioned looked like the people of the state of Montana," Hill says. "The people of the state of Montana aren't all old white men. So, we're thrilled to represent what we see as the true faces of the people."
That said, the Montana Legislature is distinctly homogenous this session. Republicans will fill 68 of 100 seats in the House. That reality means this session will require finding allies and identifying commonalities in order to preserve progressive priorities.
"Just like all of us Democrats don't look the same, neither do the Republicans," Hill says. "We do already know that we have a lot of friends and a lot of common ground. Ultimately, I hope that we have more common ground than not."
And, of course, as Democrats are keenly aware, there's always another election coming down the pike.
"The pendulum will swing again," Hill says.
Republicans eye cuts in education and social services
by Matthew Frank
Next year, Republicans will enjoy one of the largest majorities in the history of the Montana House of Representatives. And they will own a six-seat majority in the Senate. The numbers suggest they won't have many difficulties advancing their agenda.
"What this will mean is that there won't be gridlock in the House," said Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor.
And what happens when Republican-controlled chambers are free of gridlock?
"My guess is there's going to be significant cuts in health and human services," predicted Sen. Dave Wanzenreid, D-Missoula.
In the wake of an Election Day that saw Republicans gain a total of 19 seats, veteran legislators Shockley and Wanzenreid led Monday's City Club Missoula forum that previewed the 2011 Montana Legislature.
"This will put us, the Republican Party, pretty well in position to the control the Legislature," Shockley said. "However, we don't have a veto. The governor does. He can veto a whole bill or he can veto a line in an appropriations bill. But the important part there is that he doesn't have a line-item insert—he can take money out, but he can't put money in. And this time there's going to be no money."
Shockley and Wanzenreid agree that money will be legislators' primary focus come January when they convene in Helena. The state faces a projected $400 million budget shortfall by mid-2013. For Shockley, that means the state needs to make significant spending cuts.
"I'm for doing away with whole programs," he said, "and, when we have money left, funding good programs to a greater extent."
Specifically, Shockley expects cuts within education and the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, but he declined to name specific items.
Wanzenreid warns of the consequences of making cuts, especially if it's a certain percentage across the board that leaves all department heads squeezed and puts savings on the backs of Montanans who receive crucial social services. He called it "the easy way out."
Instead, Wanzenreid asks for the spending cut discussion to be balanced by one about ways to generate more revenue.
"Don't let us adjourn without a robust debate on revenue this time, folks," he told the audience at the Holiday Inn Downtown at the Park. "The expenditures side of the equation we argue about all the time. But I would submit to you that we probably wouldn't have this revenue shortfall had a lot of other people looked at the revenue estimate and had a debate about it."
But Wanzenreid, understandably, isn't too optimistic that such a discussion will take place.
"Right now, from what I understand, there aren't a lot of people elected on Tuesday in the majority party who feel that we have a revenue problem," he said. "They feel that we have an expenditure problem. So we'll have to see."
Shockley responded: "If we cut expenditures, then we don't have to raise revenue."
Pat Williams gives his perspective on a schizophrenic electorate
by Matthew Frank
During his 18-year tenure representing Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pat Williams learned a thing or two about the American electorate. But now, Williams tells the Indy in an interview, voters have him downright flummoxed.
Independent: To what do you attribute the "shellacking" Republicans gave Democrats on Election Day?
Williams: First, near record low turnout, which always has favored Republicans for the past three quarters of a century. Second, disillusionment and discouragement of the voter has created an historic vacillation. Voters are jumping from landslides for Democrats to landslides for Republicans, and doing it just about every two years, which is a historic phenomenon, and yet to be appropriately analyzed by political historians. It is, needless to say, a very interesting and not well-understood time in this country.
Independent: So is it a reaction to the economy or what?
Williams: Standard political thought leads one to accept that the economy always guides election results. But I have the feeling that the last several elections, including the phenomenon of Obama two years ago, represent a new paradigm in voters' choices. I admit to not knowing exactly what it is, or what's causing it, but these wildly vacillating results are not in keeping with any historic trends over the past 75 years...It's almost as if there is a frenetic political seeking going on.
Independent: The GOP spent the last two years trying to obstruct anything and everything the Obama administration tried to accomplish. Do the election results portend more gridlock or common ground?
Williams: Unfortunately, I think the election results now assure at least as much gridlock as we found when the Republicans were in the minority. I'm uncertain if Americans want gridlock or compromise, and I frankly think Americans are uncertain about that, too. Because when they get compromise, as they did with the health care bill, they immediately turn around and vote for gridlock. The American electorate is not the only group that's confused. So are the people they elect.
Independent: There's already talk that such gridlock could lead to a government shutdown, similar to the one in 1995 when you were in office.
Williams: The way Democrats use their majority is often to overreach by passing legislation. The way Republicans in the majority overreach is by trying to stop everything, or even, as in 1995, by trying to stop everything and shutting down government entirely. And Americans seem to oppose both of those kinds of responses.
Independent: So you're saying voters are a bunch of schizos?
Williams: Just look at Montana. Montanans want a balanced budget, and under Democrats and Republicans, they get it. They want surpluses, they get them. They want lower taxes, and in Montana, they've got 'em. They want their services maintained and under Schweitzer and the Democrats they got it. And what was their response? To overwhelmingly vote Republican. So it's very difficult for politicians who have constitutional obligations to represent the people's wishes to really understand what those wishes are.
Independent: So what's your prediction for the next two years?
Williams: I think the next couple of years, both with the Montana Legislature as well as the U.S. Congress, are going to disappoint the hell out of people, in part because there will be gridlock and in part because we constituents aren't sure exactly what we want, so what we get is bound to disappoint us. I say this carefully because America is very resilient, but I suspect that America is in an unstable and therefore somewhat dangerous time in its electoral history. There's far too little participation among people, and their expectations are contrary and varied one from the other. That makes representative government chaotic.