Friday, February 03, 2023

Both sides comment on lopsided election

by Kristi Niemeyer
Editor | November 17, 2022 12:00 AM

Predictably, representatives for local Republicans and Democrats voiced very different views of the outcomes from last Tuesday’s general election.

State Sen. Greg Hertz of Polson views results, which yielded an even larger Republican majority in the Legislature, as vindication of his party’s policies.

Democratic spokesman Craig McClure, on the other hand, believes a national climate of fear and anger has infected politics at the local level. “The tone at the national level Is terrible, and it’s playing out here,” he said. “In Lake County folks used to get beyond the R&D a little bit more.”

Two local races for the state House of Representatives illustrate those trends. In the general election two years ago, Republicans bested Democrats running for House Districts 12 and 93 by around 14 percentage points. This election cycle, that spread ranged from 19 to 24%. And in a surprising turn, St. Ignatius Republican Ralph Foster nearly wrested a House seat from incumbent Marvin Weatherwax Jr., a Democrat from Browning, losing by just 26 votes.

Hertz says House District 93 incumbent Joe Read held his seat against a strong campaign by Shirly Azzopardi by “discussing and supporting issues that provide financial relief to family budgets, strengthen our economy, protect freedoms and preserve the Montana way of life.”

“His opponent seemed to focus on a more liberal agenda,” says Hertz.

He attributed Foster’s near win in a historically Democratic district to strong voter turnout in Lake County.

“Not an easy place for a Democrat to run”

From McClure’s perspective, “Lake County is not easy place for a Democrat to run.” He praised Azzopardi and Sterling Laudon, who ran against incumbent Linda Rexsten in HD 12, for “their willingness to represent the Democrats and our platform, and the hard work and sacrifice that they put into it. They were very well-qualified candidates.”

“It’s not easy to get folks to throw their names in the fray in today’s political world,” he added.

McClure pointed out that Azzopardi, in particular, began campaigning last May and visited close to 1,200 voters in her district. Around 100 community volunteers served as her drivers, knocked on doors across the county and wrote a steady stream of letters to local newspapers.

In addition, he said the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Red Medicine, an organization dedicated to increase political engagement among Native voters, helped “ensure tribal members got out to vote and had access to the polls.”

Still, those efforts didn’t seem to move the needle on local election results, nor alter the race for U.S. House, with former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke receiving 49% of the vote (55% in Lake County) to claim a seat in the newly formed district. His main opponent, Monica Tranel, secured 46% (40% locally).

“The voters in Western Montana are very familiar with Ryan and have thrown their trust behind his policies related to the economy and protecting freedoms while his opponent was a supporter of the liberal policies of President Biden, which Montanans have firmly opposed,” said Hertz.

Praise for bipartisan forums

McClure praised “good cooperative efforts across the aisle” that brought candidates together for two bipartisan forums, one for legislative candidates and a second for justice of the peace. Democrats hosted a third for Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb after Republicans dropped out when their candidate refused the invitation to participate.

“I really appreciate the GOP being willing to work with us so voters had an opportunity to hear what our candidates stood for – it was a good thing for everybody,” says McClure.

He was less enthused about Republicans’ overt support of judicial candidates, from the Supreme Court race between Ingrid Gustafson and James Brown to the local justice of the peace contest. “That partisan judicial thing really bothered me,” he said.

The local Republican Party’s support for JP candidate Rick Schoening over opponent Mike Larson in a race that’s supposedly non-partisan was especially baffling to McClure. “Both of those are good guys,” he said. “Why they chose to put their finger on the scale, I don’t know.”

Hertz foresees tax breaks, infrastructure help

With the focus now shifting to the upcoming legislative session, Hertz predicts that larger Republican majorities may result in “some amendment proposals to our constitution, which voters will decide.”

He predicts more bills will be introduced regarding abortion rights, and hopes the Montana Supreme Court will support bills passed by the 2020 Legislature and currently enjoined by a district court “that limited abortion after the first trimester, which the majority of voters in the country support.”

He’s in favor of returning “a good portion” of the state’s budget surplus to resident taxpayers, with the remainder addressing a variety of issues, including prisons, mental illness and issues at the state mental hospital, infrastructure, and maintenance and building projects for rural school districts.

Holding candidates accountable

McClure says the Republicans’ likely supermajority, “is going to be a real big thing for Montana. I just hope they can use that power to do good things for Montana families.”

Local Democrats plan to keep an eye on the Legislature’s trajectory, working with Democrats in other counties “to weigh in at the committee level and try to pick and track some key topics” in hopes of influencing outcomes “before the bill gets out on the floor.”

“Long term, we’ve got to hold our own candidates accountable here.”

McClure, who volunteered as a poll watcher this year, also gave a shout out to election administrator Toni Kramer, the staff at the Lake County Election Office and all the poll workers who helped gather and tally more than 13,000 ballots.

“It’s a really cool thing to see all the checks and balances that go in to making sure everything is counted accurately,” he said, describing the process as a “herculean effort.”

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