June 6th will feature the special election runoff for the California 34th district. The seat, deep in the heart of Los Angeles, was vacated when Congressman Xavier Becerra was appointed California Attorney General. This forced a special election in a seat that gave Hillary Clinton over 80% of the vote in 2016, ensuring all focus would be on the Democratic side. As a series of other special elections were triggered, CA-34 fell off the radar. Surprisingly competitive Democrats in KS-04 and MT-AL; as well as a very competitive GA-06 special relegated CA-34 to afterthought.
The special election for Montana’s At-Large seat is upon us. The election was triggered by Donald Trump appointing Congressman Zinke as Interior Secretary, leaving a seat up for grabs that Democrats have not held since 1996. The seat has attracted money and interest, but Republicans, aiming to avoid a shock result, have been the largest spenders in the race. Republicans are running Greg Gianforte, a businessman who narrowly lost a Gubernatorial bid last year. Democrats are running Rob Quist, a folk singer who falls into the Bernie Sander’s wing of the party. Quist has run an aggressive campaign while Gianforte has relied more on money and paid advertising. Polling has put Gianforte in first, with wide variations from small to modest. Montana was solid for Trump in 2016, but its history of voting Democrat for Governor and Senator, coupled with Trump’s falling approvals, mean nothing can be taken for granted.
Montana is sparsely populated, but does host some key population centers. Only seven cities have a populations over 20,000 people. Much of Montana’s population is in the western part of the state while the east remains much more rural.
A super-simple summary of these cities/areas is as follows
- Missoula — home to University of Missoula, solid democratic area
- Butte — old mining and union town
- Bozeman — growing city, tourism site, white-collar, high educated
- Billings — site of large growth by rich people moving in out of state
- Helena — Capital, more Republican/swing area, home to lots of outdoor recreation
- Great Falls — rust-belt style city that has seen declining economy
- Kalispell — trading port city
Montana is also one of the whitest states in the nation. The largest non-white group is Native Americans, which are clustered in assorted reservations in the state.
Montana was solid for Trump in 2016, giving him an over 20% margin. Clinton’s wins where clustered in the west and along the Indian Reservations. Clinton won in Bozeman, a booming city with a growing white-collar and a major tourist destination (close to Big Sky), and Missoula, home to the University of Missoula. Clinton won in Butte, an older union, mining-town region but by a narrow margin.
While Clinton was losing Montana by 20 points, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock was winning by four. Bullock won the counties hosting Great Falls and Helena and only narrowly lost in Yellowstone, home to Billings. Bullock racked up much stronger wins in Butte and did better out west.
Bullock’s win was just by winning more counties, he outperformed Clinton across the state. Bullock did over 15% better in many counties in the western part of the state, with a very rural counties in the east staying stead-fast GOP.
Obama’s 2012 run in Montana was not strong, though he did win more counties than Clinton. His 15 point loss was much weaker than his 2008 run, where he came very close to taking the state.
In 2008, Obama won more counties than he did in 2012, but he also had narrower margins in counties he lost. Like any state, its not just about winning key population centers, but also keeping margins as low as possible in the rural regions.
Below is each county and how they voted in key recent elections, sorted by total votes cast in 2016. Just a handful of counties control a majority of the vote in Montana.
Montana’s East-West Split
People who study Montana’s politics and culture note a distinct east-west divide in the state. Eastern Montana is much more rural and like the great plains, losing population every census. Western Montana, dominated by the Rocky Mountains, is home to most of the states tourist hot-spots. The region is growing, the site of retirees and young workers, with a growing population. Population projects show the east continuing to lose population and the west on track to keep gaining people.
The western portion of the state is also much more educated than the east, with more and more residents holding bachelors degrees.
Compare the education map to a map showing how the partisan margin for President between 2012 and 2016 shifted.
As was seen in the rest of the nation, there was a clear correlation between how the Presidential votes shifted and the education/economy of an area.
The Democratic margin improved in one county, the one with the highest Bachelor’s degree %. The GOP margin, meanwhile, improved in many counties with lower-education, often sites of mines that do or did dot the west (Map from Montana Mining Association).
Democrat’s weakening in the mining and working class areas are part of a nationwide trend. While Clinton performed weak in these areas, Bullock managed to do better, aiding his re-election.
The combination of old union, mining towns and a growing educated population have continued a long trend of Western Montana being more Democratic than the east.
Until 1992, Montana had two congressional districts, with the western 1st district held by a Democrat, and the eastern 2nd held by a Republican. When Montana lost a seat in 1992, the two congressmen went against each-other for that At-Large seat. Democrat Williams won by a 3% while winning his old district and losing the 2nd.
Looking at several recent election in Montana broken down by the old 1st and 2nd district, the political split in the state is clear. The old 2nd district is solidly Republican while the first leans Democratic.
Clinton under-performed in the West, but tanked by record levels in the east. Clinton’s drop in mining, working-class areas gave her one of the weakest showing in the west for any high-profile race. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Jon Tester only narrowly lost in the east in his 2012 re-election. The east and west often produce large splits in how they vote, but Tester’s 2012 win saw the lowest split thanks to his strength in the east. Democrats may under-perform in the east, but they still can keep things close, as Tester demonstrates.
The east/west split is worth keeping an eye on for the future. Montana has narrowly missed out on a 2nd district in the last two censuses and still stands in the running for 2020. A split in Montana could produce a western district more favorable to Democrats. The line’s would be different from 1992 (the west is too over-populated now) — but any western variation (absent an aggressive gerrymander) would be in play for Democrats.
Montana is often written off in the political conversation most of the time, lumped in with deep red states like Idaho or Wyoming. However, Montana’s politics are much more complex than other parts of the region. The state’s east-west divide is real and the state’s history of electing Democrats mean nothing can be written off.
The special election in the Kansas 4th district is not supposed to be on anyone’s radar. When Donald Trump picked Congressman Mike Pompeo to be his CIA director, ratings for the special election started at “Safe R.” The district is solid red, voting for Trump by 27 points. It includes Wichita and several rural farm counties. Both party candidates where chosen at local conventions, with Democrats choosing James Thompson, an attorney and avowed progressive and Republicans choosing State Treasurer Ron Estes.
In 2015, Florida was ordered to undergo a round of mid-decade redistricting after the Florida Supreme Court found the 2012 Congressional Plan passed by the GOP-controlled Florida legislature to be unconstitutional. When the legislature failed to agree on a map, a judge selected a plan drawn by the coalition plaintiffs – who had originally filed suit over the map. This year was the first time an election was held under this new map.
Every since Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, the Republican caucus has been more fractured and divided than anytime in modern history. The wave of new Congresspeople featured many “Tea Party” politicians than ran and won on bucking the establishment. However, GOP leaders soon realized that the “establishment” did just refer to Obama and Democrats, but GOP leaders themselves. For the last five years, Speaker Boehner and now Speaker Ryan have had to deal with the unruly “Freedom Caucus” — a collection of tea-party politicians who often refuse to compromise on legislation. The Freedom Caucus has forced the GOP establishment to turn to Democrats for must-pass measures on more than one occasion. Boehner saw his leadership challenged several times and even Ryan has had to watch his back.
Establishment Strikes Back and the Farm Bill
The GOP’s internal division has spilled out into the campaigns. Establishment candidates have faced primaries from more conservative candidates. However, the establishment wing of the GOP has begun to fight back. Last year, the Chamber of Commerce announced it would take on GOP incumbents that effectively stood in the way of governing. Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp fit the model of a congressman the establishment forced of the GOP would target. He was a prominent Freedom Congress member that backed a challenge to Boehner for Speaker. His antics cost him his seat on the Agriculture Committee, a coveted seat considering his district, the Kansas 1st, has more farmers than any in the country. In addition to this loss of a committee assignment, Huelskamp angered voters in his district by opposing the Farm Bill, a large bi-partisan bill that is key for farmers to maintain their livelihood.
Huelskamp almost lost his 2014 primary due to his antics. He only got 56% of the vote in a race against an opponent that didn’t have nearly the same level of backing his 2016 opponent received.
The 2016 Campaign
When 2016 came around, there was a concerted effort to finally oust Huelskamp. Opposition rallied around Roger Marshall, a physician. Marshall had the financial backing of major agriculture organizations and the Chamber of Commerce. Huelskamp had the Koch Brothers on his side, but Marshall had more 3rd party money backing him than the incumbent. Farm issues was center to the campaign, with the Kansas Farm Bureau backing Marshall and attacking the incumbent for his opposition to farm issues and his removal from the Agriculture Committee. The narrative of the campaign was that Huelskamp’s attitude made him ineffective and he put purity over getting things done to help his district. The primary was expected to be close, but in the end, Marshall won comfortably.
Huelskamp lost a vast majority of the counties in his district. He only won big in Meade, his home county, and its neighbors. Compared to his 2014 election, he lost ground in all by two counties.
Huelskamp is the only congressman to lose his primary this year that isn’t due to redistricting or scandal. At the end of the day, voters decided they wanted someone who could be effective for their district.
Probably the most amusing portion of the evening was when this photo surfaced on twitter. Apparently former Speaker Boehner had received word of Huelskamp’s fate.
I get a sense a similar smile was on Speaker Ryan’s face as well.
New York Congressman Charlie Rangel opted to retire in 2016 after over 4 decades in Congress. Rangel was a powerful figure in New York and Democratic politics, surviving ethics investigation and major changes to his Congressional District. When Rangel won his seat in Congress in 1970, the district was an African-American seat, but over the years the region Rangel has Represented (Northern Manhattan and portions of the Bronx) has seen a growing Hispanic population.
New York Democratic Congressman Jared Nadler angered some in his district when he backed President Obama’s Iran Deal, which lifted sanctions on the Islamic Nation in exchange for it ending its nuclear program. By all accounts, the deal has worked, with Iran ending its program, ties between Iran and the West improving, and moderates making substantial gains in the Iranian Parliament. Nadler’s 10th district has the largest Jewish population in the nation.
Now that Florida’s Supreme Court has signed off on a Congressional map, the voters of Florida can finally know what districts they live in. For voters in North Florida, this means dramatic changes to their current political situation. Many voters west of Walton County will find themselves either in a safe Republican seat that stretches from Bay to Marion, the Florida 2nd; or a safe Democratic seat that goes from Gadsden to Jacksonville, the Florida 5th. The new 5th district is designed to be an African-American district, replacing the Jacksonville to Orlando configuration of the past.
The Florida Legislature released its base map heading into next week’s Special Session on redistricting. The map makes changes to 22 of the 27 districts. Some changes are small while others are very large. Many voters will find themselves in brand new districts if the base map becomes law. The map below shows areas that will change districts and those that will remain the same.
In today’s Tallahassee Democrat article, DNC member Jon Ausman and myself advocated for keeping Leon County whole in any new congressional district drawn in next month’s Special Session. The Supreme Court ordered that the current 5th Congressional district, stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando, be eliminated and a new east-west district be drawn. The court cited the proposed districts by the League of Women Voters as an acceptable option. The League’s proposed map splits Leon County between two districts, thus diluting the power of the County and Tallahassee.