Reflecting much of the rest of the state — and the nation — Democrats were swept from the general election Tuesday in the Havre area.
The situation in Hill and Blaine counties may be more startling than some areas — the blue-collar, heavily union region has a tradition as a Democratic stronghold. While Republicans have held offices in this region in the past, the number — and margins — of non-Democratic victories is more than a little unusual, many experienced politicians are saying, and seems to reflect the national trend.
“I was extremely surprised that we lost all three (legislative elections,)” Hill County Democratic Party Chair John Musgrove said this morning. “Montana usually doesn’t follow the national trend, and this time it seemed to.
“I’m still trying to analyze why that happened,” Musgrove added.
Republicans — and an independent — swept the elections locally. Rowlie Hutton of Havre defeated Speaker of the House Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, in the race for Hill and Blaine counties’ Senate District 17, Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, defeated Dana Sapp Seidel in the race for House District 34, also in Hill and Blaine counties, and Republican Kris Hansen defeated Jack Trethewey in the race for Hill County’s House District 33.
In other races, Republican-endorsed independent candidate Jeff LaVoi defeated Democrat James “Jim” Catt Jr. in the race for Hill County commissioner, while Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson, a Democrat, lost his bid for re-election to Republican challenger Frank DePriest. In the Public Service Commission race, Republican blogger Travis Kavulla defeated former Democratic Rep. Don Ryan.
Hill County Republican Party Chair Andrew Brekke said Thursday that his party had hoped for victories, but the extent of the wins was surprising.
“It’s certainly exciting,” he said.
The two parties have a little different slant on the cause of the Republican victories.
Brekke credited much of his party’s success with the caliber of the candidates who ran, as well as the large number of people — many of whom had never been involved in politics before — who stepped up to help.
“A lot of new people stepped in and helped catapult us to victory,” he said.
On the other hand, some Democrats are saying the victories are tied to a nationwide discontent with federal policies and the situation in the country and the world, as well as heavy Republican spending on very effective campaign strategies.
“I think this is just a period of discontent,” former Democratic Hill County Commissioner and state Rep. Antoinette “Toni” Hagener said Thursday. “They're not happy with the war, not happy with health care, not happy with anything going on. …
“Maybe it has to do with the weather, too,” she added.
Local, state and national trend
The sweep in north-central Montana — Republican Ryan Osmundson defeated Democrat Kurt Myllymaki in House District 29, which includes eastern Chouteau County, and Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady was unopposed in the race for House District — left most of the region in Republican red.
The only Democratic legislators left in the Havre area are State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, who was not up for re-election this year, and Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, who won the primary and was unopposed in the general election.
Republicans have held office in the region before. Examples include former Gov. Stan Stephens of Havre, who was a state senator before taking that office; Bob Sivertsen was elected as a Republican representative; and Merlin Wolery of Rudyard won the 2000 election against incumbent Rep. Hagener. Lloyd Wolery also sat on the Hill County Commission from 1991 through 1997.
But those victories were in the middle of decades of iconic Democratic leadership in the area. Harlem rancher Francis Bardenouve was a Democratic representative for some four decades; Havre’s Jim Pasma was a legendary local and statewide leader of the Democratic party; outgoing PSC Chair Greg Jergeson of Chinook, was a state senator first elected in 1974 before being elected to the PSC in 2002 — he could not run for re-election this year because of term limits, which also took him out of the Senate; and Havre’s Ray Peck served in the legislature from 1983 through 2001 before he termed out — as did Bardenouve.
Jergeson said this morning that he lost an election in a similar Republican wave in 1980 to Swede Hammond of Malta before being re-elected in 1986. In that election, though, the Phillips and Valley county portions of the district at that time carried the election for Hammond, but Blaine County still went to Jergeson, he said.
But this election the number of victories — and the margins of victories — surpasses any previous Republican victories.
“I think it was the wave,” Jergeson said.
State Democratic Chair Jim Elliot said Thursday the Republican victory mirrors much of Montana and other states and the nation. The Republicans will control the U.S. Congress and the Montana House of Representatives and are expected to maintain a slim lead in the Montana Senate. The Democrats maintained control of the U.S. Senate, although with a slimmer majority.
Elliot said Republican victories happened everywhere. In staunchly Democratic Butte, Republican Max Yates narrowly defeated Democrat Bob Brock; in Minnesota the Republicans took control of the state Senate for the first time in the state’s history; across the nation the GOP picked up more than 600 seats in state legislatures.
How it happened
Different party leaders had different views on the Republican victories in north-central Montana.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said a large part of the victory came from the qualities of the Republican candidates themselves.
“You can’t discount the role of having outstanding political candidates there,” he said. “It’s not something a party can count on happening.”
He said the large number of volunteers helping the candidates also helped, both in the Havre area and around the state.
The national discontent with federal policy also was a factor, Greenwood said, both in bringing out volunteers and in how the votes fell.
“I believe the people of Montana and this nation are rejecting the idea of a government that does everything for us,” Greenwood said. “I think the people want a smaller, humbler government.”
But Elliott said the national picture played a major role in a different way: the Republicans used it to sway people in local legislative races.
“It’s a national phenomenon tied in with the national Republican election,” he said. “It was extraordinarily effective. …
“It played on the normal fears and anxieties people have in a severe economic downturn,” he added.
Several Democrats said the amount of money the Republicans poured into the region definitely helped their candidates, adding that the impact of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to make political contributions is unknown at this point.
Peck said he has seen north-central Montana candidates spending more than $15,000 this election.
“I used to run a campaign on $2,500,” he said.
He added that the lack of participation by Democrats definitely impacted the election — instead of 36 percent or 37 percent turnout of Democrats as in this election, the Havre area usually sees 45-percent to 50-percent turnout.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Musgrove said the Republican focus on national issues was very effective, and the lack of focus on local and state issues bothered him during the campaign.
“That is a successful ploy to impeach local Democrats for what is happening at the federal level,” he said.
Jergeson echoed that idea, saying he doubts that people have any personal dislike of most of the Democratic candidates, but they were rebelling against the national Democratic leadership.
He added that he doubts that Bergren, Seidel or Trethewey have the ear of Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or have been advising her on issues.
Both sides of the ticket are saying they are looking forward to the next elections.
Brekke said he already is looking at candidates for the next city elections in 2011, as well as candidates for county commissioner and national elections.
“It’s not over by any stretch,” he said. “We have committed to making this continue and to continue the momentum.”
Peck said he believes a Democratic comeback will depend on what happens with the economy and with the actions of President Barack Obama. If Democrats are dissatisfied with how Obama handles working with the new House leadership, Peck said, he believes many Democrats will pull their support.
Jergeson said he believes one key will be relearning how to communicate with voters. Both parties on the national level seem to be looking for a formula that will work in campaigning, instead of talking about issues.
“I don’t think we should ever undersell the public,” he said. “They can understand these issues.”
Both Musgrove and Elliott said they plan to look at what happened and strategize to try to take back seats in the future.
“We have to, of course, take some time and analyze what exactly happend so we’re prepared for (the next elections,)” Musgrove said. “We’re going to assume that this was an anomaly.”