The future of Hi-Line politics?
Local politicians say success is in the candidates, hard work, not parties
December 30, 2013
The past 10 years saw local Republicans making strong inroads in Blaine and Hill counties, traditionally Democratic strongholds, but some local movers and shakers from both parties are in agreement - there are no guarantees for either party in the next 10 years.
"I think that either party, moving forward, has just as much chance" for success, Hill County Republican Party Chair and Havre City Council Chair Andrew Brekke said in a recent interview.
Brekke and his Democratic counterpart, Hill County Party Chair Brenda Skornogoski, and Republican Rep. Kris Hansen and Democratic Sen. Greg Jergeson, all of Havre, granted the Havre Daily News interviews to discuss the politics of the last decade and what they foresee in the next 10 years.
Republican inroads in the 21st century
While Republicans in the past have been elected from this region - including former 16-year state senator and then Gov. Stan Stephens - Hill and Blaine counties long were considered solidly blue, with a string of Democratic legislators including legendary figures like Rep. Francis Bardenouve, D-Harlem, Rep. Ray Peck, D-Havre, and icon Jim Pasma of Havre, known as "Mr. Democrat" throughout the state.
But a wave of Republican success began with the start of the 21st century.
In 2001, Bob Rice, running in his second campaign for Havre mayor - he lost his bid in 1997 - became the first Republican mayor of the town in decades. Rice won his bid for re-election in 2005.
That was followed by an increase in members of the Grand Old Party on the Havre City Council, which usually had only one or two Republicans, becoming evenly split between Democrats and Republicans after the 2011 election for what some said was the first time in the city's history.
The shift extended to county government as well, with independent Jeff LaVoi, backed by the Republican Party in Hill County, and Blaine County Republican Frank DePriest each winning seats on their county commissions.
And it also extended to the state level.
In 2008, Republican Wendy Warburton won a seat in the state House, again, not that unusual in this region. But the election in 2010 saw an unheard-of sweep of contested legislative races in Hill and Blaine counties, with Warburton winning a second term and legislative newcomers Kris Hansen and Rowlie Hutton winning seats in the House and Senate, respectively.
The Republican tide was a little more hit-and-miss in the next few years, but the GOP was able to hold onto some of its strength.
Rowlie Hutton announced his resignation from the Senate during his first legislative session, in 2011, to move to Nebraska. Havre City Council member Rick Dow, elected in 2011, this year resigned and moved to Minnesota.
A Republican was appointed to replace Hutton in the Senate, but long-time legislator and former Public Service Commissioner Greg Jergeson returned to politics in 2012 - he had termed out of both the Senate and PSC - to win that seat back for the Democrats.
Warburton and Hansen both retained their seats for the Republicans in that election.
This year, Democrats won back some of their strength in Havre City Council, with Jay Pyette, who was appointed to fill Dow's seat, winning a four-year term on the council in an unopposed election.
The Republicans retained a seat in the only contested election on City Council, however, with political newcomer Matt Boucher defeating Democrat Karen Datko in her first race for public office. Boucher took the seat vacated by Republican Bob Kaftan, who did not run for re-election.
With the re-election of Democrat Allen "Woody" Woodwick and the election of political newcomer Terry Lilletvedt to take the seat of fellow Democrat Gerry Veis, who did not run for re-election, the council is now split 5-3 in favor of the Democrats.
Democrat Mayor Tim Solomon again defeated Bob Rice in a replay of the 2009 Havre mayoral race.
The next question is who will win in the 2014 state elections - and how the parties will play out in the next 10 years.
Focusing on the candidates, and the voters
One issue the four people interviewed by the Havre Daily News agreed on - they had differences on several particulars - was that a main factor on success in elections is who is running, and how they campaign.
Brekke said he believes the recent GOP success in this region is primarily due to having more candidates, qualified candidates, and those candidates and their supporters putting in the time to get out their message.
"It really matters, who you nominate," he said.
Hansen echoed Brekke during her interview.
"I think the candidates and their willingness to look closely at what matters is really what drives the vote," she said.
Skornogoski said the candidate is a key - but how they campaign, and how they are supported, also is crucial.
She noted that the amount of money spent in state races in this area has quadrupled - while John Musgrove raised and spent about $5,000 in his first campaign for state representative, Hansen spent closer to $20,000 in her last race, Skornogoski said. The campaign spending is increasing around the state, especially by Republican candidates, and the Democrats need to emulate that, she said.
"Not that I think money is everything, but it certainly is good at getting your name out there," she said.
"If you look at the sources of funds, I think you'll see that many of them are from out of state," Skornogoski added.
She said she believes the Democrats have not done as well at raising funds to spend in campaigns as the GOP candidates, and that she believes her party needs to work harder at doing so.
Jergeson said the success in 2010 shows that Republicans have a chance in this region - "That fact's on the ground," he said - but that he does not believe it guarantees them seats in the future.
"Does it mean long-term change? A new realignment of politics in the area? I don't think so," Jergeson said. "It may mean the two parties are more competitive than in the past."
Brekke and Jergeson both said that many Republicans may not have looked to win in this area - something Jergeson said the Democrats also have been guilty of, both in campaigning and not campaigning, here and around the state.
"Democrats are going to have to be careful to, No. 1, not take some voters for granted and, No. 2, not write other voters off," he said. "I think, for both political parties in different areas of the state, that starts happening."
Brekke made similar comments. Before Rice won the mayoral election, many Republicans may have thought it wasn't worth the effort to campaign in Hill and Blaine counties, he said.
"Prior to 2001, I think a lot of Republicans were distraught and distressed," he said.
An independent streak
Both Brekke and Hansen said they believe the Republican victories in recent years stem in part from the nature of local voters. While majorities voted Democrat for years, Hill and Blaine county residents tend to vote how they think, the Republicans said.
Brekke said the region always has had pockets of both liberal- and conservative-based voters. Those pockets still are there, he said.
"I don't think the people changed," Brekke said. "I just think their choices changed."
Hansen said the independent nature of Montana voters is even more prominent here on the Hi-Line. Many people around the country, and in Montana, might say they are independent, but their votes ended up leaning toward one party or the other, she said.
"That really isn't true around here," Hansen said. "When people say they're independent, they mean it."
She said the key is to find candidates who care and who are willing to put in the work, both to campaign and to learn the complex issues, from school board and city government to state government, and then vote on them.
"Folks around here understand that they want their candidate to care about their community, they want their candidate to care about its future, they want their candidate to care about people, and then that candidate also has to understand that public service has a big-time commitment to it if you want to do a good job," she said.
Tea party influence
But both Jergeson and Skornogoski said another influence has been on a national level, and it could drive things back toward the Democrats.
"I see some support (for Democrats) coming back, for sure," Skornogoski said. "I think the Republican party has moved so far to the right that it will damage them."
Jergeson said the contentious nature of politics in recent years has led to divisions in the Republican Party. He pointed to attack ads, often by Republicans against primary opponents in recent elections, translating into contention in the Legislature and Congress.
The legislative session this year saw many more moderates from both parties reaching across the aisle to try to find solutions, Jergeson said. He added that some Republicans did not seem to be pleased with that.
"There was anger created in that party with those further to the right," he said, adding, "How things move into the future is going to be determined, in some cases, by outcomes of Republican primaries."
Hansen agreed, in a way. Some national-level issues, like people's response to the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - could lead to people changing their votes, she said, adding that that still brings the decision down to the candidate.
"There will be people who say, 'You know what, I'm not going to go that direction any more,'" she said. "I ... think those people, when given a choice between this candidate or the other candidate, are still going to say, 'This is the direction I want to go. Will this candidate hear both sides and make the right decision?' I think it is more about the character of the people who are on the ballot, in a lot of ways. in areas like this, in small towns and small communities, that is very significant."
One area that may have changed the complexion of local politics is the impact of labor unions.
Both Hill and Blaine counties traditionally have had strong union presences, including from the railroad, governments, schools and entities like local health care centers and Montana State University-Northern.
Brekke said he believes that has changed, not only locally but nationwide.
"If there is a change, I think that might be one of the areas," he said. "It seems unions have lost a little bit of their power. ... Overall, their ability to turn out the vote doesn't always pan out the way they anticipate."
Skornogoski and Jergeson also said unions may have lost some pull, and some members.
Skornogoski said an issue seems to be people wondering what the unions can do to benefit them - which, she added, is misplaced.
Skornogoski said people take for granted concepts guaranteed by law like a 40-hour workweek and overtime pay. But those laws are in place because unions demanded them, she said.
"I think people are unaware of the gains they have gotten from unions, whether they are in a union or not," she said.
Jergeson said that trend has extended into the rural areas, as well. Previous generations tended to be New Deal farmers with strong support for cooperatives and farmers unions.
"That's less so, these days, and that's probably changed politics," he said.
He added that it could lead to some Democrats missing an opportunity to pick up votes - the Democratic Party tends to take union member votes for granted, he said.
Hansen referred again to the independent nature of local voters - people look to the issues that are important to them, not whether they are union members, she said.
In the two elections in which she has gone door to door talking to voters, "I can count on one hand the times that a union question has actually come up," Hansen said. "I dont think it's a big issue in this area."
New districts in place
And another issue that could lead to party advantages is where the districts are.
The districts drawn from the last Census radically change the lines in this region, including creating a Senate district that stretches from Wild Horse to the North Dakota border and a new house district that incudes just the city of Havre.
One change directly impacts two of the speakers in this story. Both Hansen and Jergeson have declared their intent to run for the seat in the new Senate district that stretches from the Canadian border in Hill and Liberty counties down to Great Falls, and includes the new Havre-only House district.
Hansen said that new House district probably gives an advantage to the Democrats - Republicans had a better opportunity with the districts that split Havre and mixed it with rural voters in Hill and Blaine counties - but that it makes more sense to keep voters with similar interests together.
She added that, as long as the Republicans find a candidate who cares about the city and about the issues, the GOP still could hold that seat.
Brekke made similar comments. While the Havre district leans statistically toward the Democrats, and the rural areas lean statistically toward the Republicans, nothing is certain. The Democrats seemed to have the advantage 10 years and 20 years ago, but Warburton's victory and the 2010 election showed that nothing is certain, he said. That also is true with the districts coming into play next election.
"It looks like we will have a statistical advantage, but that doesn't always come into fruition," he said.
Both Jergeson and Skornogoski agreed on one issue with the redistricting - having a 250-mile Senate district means the legislator can't represent it well.
"Talk about gerrymandering ... ," Skornogoski said. "I don't think it serves the people."
"It becomes hugely unmanageable for the best-intentioned legislator ... ," Jergeson said. "The likelihood is, at one time or another, people at one end or another will have little communication with their lawmaker."
Both sides see opportunity for success
Both sides of the aisle in the interviews also made similar comments on the final question about party success - while success is not a guarantee, they believe their respective parties can find victories in the 2014 election and in the decade to come.
While Brekke noted that politics no longer should come in on city elections - the voters this year approved making those races nonpartisan - he said the GOP sees a chance for more success in the local partisan races.
"I think we are well-placed, moving forward, particularly in the Legislature," he said.
Skornogoski said that, for 2014, she thinks the Democrats could see some success.
"We have several people who have expressed an interest whom I think would be very good," she said.
Hansen said, as long as the candidate is right, the GOP still could win seats, even in areas with a Democratic leaning like Havre.
"If ... we recruit that candidate who cares about the district and cares about the people in the district and is willing to work hard for the district, I think Havre the city will vote for that candidate regardless of their party affiliation and I think that's the way it should be," she said. "Everybody is sick of the partisan, heavily partisan, clamor and clang that goes around these days, and, provided that we recruit somebody who just loves the area, we are going to do well."