Republicans in Montana are trying to change the rules for next year’s Senate primary to make it easier to defeat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and win back the Senate majority.
A bill moving through the statehouse in Helena would change the structure of the election from the party primary system currently in place to a jungle primary in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party. The move would essentially box out Libertarian candidates.
The thinking among Republicans is that this would, theoretically, push those would-be third-party voters toward the GOP candidate and give the party a leg up against Tester, the three-term Senate Democrat who they are pining to take down this year.
Perhaps most galling to Democrats is the provision that the law would sunset in 2025 and not be applicable to congressional races — meaning that it would only affect Tester’s race. The bill passed the state Senate on Tuesday and is expected to pass the state House, which is controlled by a GOP supermajority, in the coming weeks.
The mood among Montana Democrats has shifted over the past weeks from anger to resignation, as they deride the proposed law as a desperate attempt to defeat a Democrat who the GOP hasn’t been able to take out at the polls.
“I would say there was anxiety when it first happened, but it’s now dissipated,” one Montana-based Democratic operative told The Hill. “No one’s running around with their hair on fire now.”
Montana Republicans told The Daily Montanan last week that the measure was intended to make sure the state’s Senator had received the support of at least half its voters. And state Rep. Greg Hertz, the bill’s sponsor, said the sunset date is to allow the legislature to evaluate whether to extend the law and apply it to other contests.
“We want to make sure that the winning U.S. senator has more than 50% of the supporting people in Montana,” Hertz said.
Multiple Montana Democrats told The Hill that they believe the legislative effort is the brainchild of Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
They say there was zero chatter surrounding this push throughout most of the legislative session, which lasts 90 working days and runs from January until May, until shortly before the bill hit the floor last week.
“This has all the feels of the D.C. apparatus coming in and saying, ‘Pass this legislation,’” said Jayson O’Neill, a Montana-based Democratic operative who served as an aide to former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D). “Surely [the Montana legislature] didn’t come up with this on their own.”
“It seems like a Hail Mary throw. … Throw it deep and see if they can get a catch,” O’Neill continued. “They’re so desperate to find that magic pathway to electoral success that they’re willing to throw anything against the wall and see if it sticks.”
The first Montana-based Democratic operative added that the only whispers going around in recent memory related to changing the primary structure were by liberal groups.
“Obviously Daines was calling people and trying to make this happen,” the operative said. “I’ve never seen something move so quickly in the state legislature. … Everyone got on board very quickly. The only way that happens is D.C. coordination.”
Tester is among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2024, running in a red state that former President Trump carried in 2016 and 2020.
And Daines has made it known that one of his top priorities as NRSC chairman is to unseat Tester as the two continue their simmering political rivalry. After Tester announced his plans to seek a fourth term, the Montana Republican issued a scathing statement, saying that Tester is making the same mistake as former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who ran against Daines in 2020 and lost by 10 percentage points.
“Both should have ended their political careers on their terms. Instead, they each will have their careers ended by Montana voters,” he said.
An NRSC spokesperson declined to comment on the Montana legislature’s efforts.
Tester won his 2018 contest by clearing the 50 percent threshold. In 2006 and 2012, however, he failed to clear that threshold and won by margins of less than one percentage point and less than four points.
The libertarian candidate won 2.5 percent and 6.5 percent support, respectively, in those races.
Still, the impact of excluding Libertarian and other third-party candidates from the November ballot is unclear. A significant portion of those who vote for Libertarian candidates do it because they either believe in the libertarian cause or are doing so as a form of a protest vote and it remains to be seen whether they would vote for a Republican or simply stay home.
“Generally, these people don’t like either party,” the Montana-based Democratic operative said.
It also remains to be seen who Tester squares off against next year. Reps. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Matt Zinke (R-Mont.) have garnered the lion’s share of attention as possible opponents, however both have political weaknesses.
Rosendale, a House Freedom Caucus member who is originally from Maryland, lost to Tester in 2018 and a number of Republicans are not anxious to see a repeat this go-around. And Zinke faces ethics issues stemming from his time as Interior secretary under former President Trump.
One possibility that could be on deck for Republicans is Tim Sheehy, a Montana-based businessman who Daines has reportedly recruited and has lauded publicly. Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and Iraq War veteran, is also attractive to Republicans because he would be able to self-finance a potential statewide bid.
“It seems like all directions are pointing at Sheehy,” said one GOP operative, noting that Sheehy and Zinke are close friends.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) is also expected to consider a Senate bid.