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Can't win if you don't run: Montana Democrats look to contest more local races

Sen. Jon Tester, seen at the U.S. Capitol, is up for reelection in 2024. Montana Democrats don't want him to be the lone Democratic candidate up and down the ballot. They're pushing for Democrats to run for local offices.
Drew Angerer
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Sen. Jon Tester, seen at the U.S. Capitol, is up for reelection in 2024. Montana Democrats don't want him to be the lone Democratic candidate up and down the ballot. They're pushing for Democrats to run for local offices.

Democrats in rural Montana recognize they may be considered a bit of a dying breed. But in August, a group of 50 gathered under the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains for a kickoff party of the newly revived Stillwater County Democratic Central Committee.

"When we were preparing for this, people would ask me, 'isn't this type of event kind of preaching to the choir?'" said Tommy Flanagan, a political organizer who co-chairs the committee. "There is no choir to preach to."

Stillwater County isn't exactly a place where you would think Democrats would be optimistic about making political inroads. In 2020, former President Donald Trump won the county with 78% of the vote.

Kathleen Ralph, a board member for county's library who has long been politically active in the community, remembers when Democrats organized more heavily in rural Montana and would consistently put forth candidates for local offices.

"But over the years, it's sort of like it's almost become impossible unless you have an 'R' after your name. We've had Democrats change to Republicans because they knew they'd never get elected," Ralph said.

Democrats in the county found renewed momentum when Flanagan ran for the state House of Representatives last year.

Flanagan, whose family has ranched in the area for generations, said he was motivated to join the race in order to prevent the Republican incumbent, Fiona Nave, from being unchallenged — again.

"It was like, we can have another unopposed race, or we can say not in Stillwater County, right? We're going to give people a choice on the ballot, and that's what I hope I did with my campaign," Flanagan said.

Flanagan got more than 1,200 votes, running on a centrist message focused on agricultural issues and access to public education. Democrats in the area call that a success for a new and openly gay candidate in a conservative district.

"I had people tell me, 'I've never voted for a Democrat ever before in my life, and I voted for you,'" Flanagan recalled.

He ultimately lost the race by 46 points.

But it's not always about winning the race, said Rob Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana. It's about actually running in the race.

"When you do not even have a presence, you don't even have a heartbeat in large swaths of a particular state, you're just on the way to a steep decline," Saldin said.

Tommy Flanagan, a political organizer who ran for the Montana House of Representatives last year, addresses a crowd gathered for the newly revived Stillwater County Democratic Central Committee.
Shaylee Ragar / Montana Public Radio
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Montana Public Radio
Tommy Flanagan, a political organizer who ran for the Montana House of Representatives last year, addresses a crowd gathered for the newly revived Stillwater County Democratic Central Committee.

Democrats want to chip away at GOP margins by lowering the number of uncontested races

Saldin said Democrats have focused too heavily on races they know they can compete in. The path to rebuilding a competitive bench of Democratic candidates in state and local races is a long game, he said, and it's played by taking what can feel like incremental steps.

"When you have these lopsided margins in rural counties, well, if you're a Democrat, you just cannot make that up, there just aren't enough votes," he said. "You don't need to be winning in these rural counties, but you need to have those margins be a little tighter."

Making those margins tighter at minimum starts with making sure every Republican candidate has a challenger — even if it's highly unlikely that challenger will win.

In Montana last cycle, Democrats left 37 of 150 legislative seats uncontested, the highest number of uncontested races there in a decade. Republicans would go on to win a supermajority in the state legislature, two years after they swept statewide offices.

It's not as though there aren't plenty of races around the country where Democratic candidates are running unopposed — but Democrats say the sheer volume of races in rural areas where there isn't any Democratic presence on the ticket represents an existential threat.

And it's a concern that extends beyond Montana.

In Louisiana, there are 77 unopposed candidates thus far in this election cycle. The majority of those unopposed seats will go to Republican candidates. Half of Louisiana's Senate seats are already decided weeks ahead of the October elections. A total of 68 state lawmakers are unopposed, including 43 Republicans. In most cases, Republican candidates simply went uncontested.

In North Carolina last year, Democrats didn't have a candidate in 44 of the 170 races for state legislature. Republicans in the state only left 10 seats uncontested, and ultimately gained a supermajority in the senate for the first time in four years. Some of the state's most polarizing figures, including the Republican Senate leader and the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, cruised to victory without an opponent.

North Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman Anderson Clayton has vowed not to let that happen again.

"North Carolinians deserve to have a choice when they go to the ballot box, not an uncontested Republican," she said. "It is our duty to ensure we have Democrats running across the state to champion our local values."

'A little bit of purple' is the goal

As Democrats try to even the playing field in Montana, they're relying on some out of state support from Contest Every Race, a national campaign recruiting and funding Democrats in local elections. The organization estimates 100,000 Republican candidates go unchallenged each year, ranging from local school board races to federal office.

Contest Every Race aims to spend $10 million on rural Democratic organizing efforts this cycle. One major donor to the campaign is the progressive Rural Democracy Initiative.

Brit Bender, the organizing director for Contest Every Race, says national Democrats have discounted rural voters for too long.

"We have to start looking inward and thinking — who are we not reaching out to, who are we not connecting with, who are we not supporting, and that's really rural counties," Bender said.

Democratic organizers in Montana say this is a critical cycle to invest in local candidates. Only one Democrat remains in statewide office, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who's running for reelection in 2024.

Sheila Hogan, executive director of the state party, hopes Tester's popularity will encourage high voter turnout. And when voters get to the polls, Hogan doesn't want them to see Tester at the top of the ballot with a patchwork of uncontested local races underneath.

"I don't know that we'll be blue all over the place, but I'd like to see a little bit of purple," Hogan said at the committee's kickoff potluck.

"A little bit of purple" as the goal is telling about the political reality of where Democrats are in Montana right now.

If Democrats don't gain some ground this election cycle, the hole they're in will only get deeper.

Shaylee Ragar is Montana Public Radio's capitol bureau chief.

WUNC's Colin Campbell and WRKF's Molly Ryan contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.