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


Sen. Jon Tester is running for re-election in the year 2024. Montana Democrats do not want him to be an lone Democratic nominee on the ballot. They want Democrats to run for local office.

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Sen. Jon Tester is running for reelection to the U.S. Capitol in 2024. Montana Democrats do not want him to run as the only Democratic candidate on the ballot. They want Democrats to run for local office.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In rural Montana, Democrats are aware that they could be considered to be 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?'” Tommy Flanagan is a co-chair of the committee and a political activist. There is no choir for me to preach. “

Stillwater county isn’t a place you would expect Democrats to be hopeful about making political gains. In 2020, the former president Donald Trump won the County with 78%.

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 it seems like over the years it has become almost impossible to get elected without an ‘R.'” 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 said that he joined the race to stop Fiona Nave from running unopposed for the Republican nomination. Flanagan stated that he wanted to provide voters with a choice.

Flanagan received more than 1,200 ballots, running with a centrist platform that focused on agricultural issues as well as access to public education. Democrats in the district call it a victory for an openly gay candidate running in a conservative area. Flanagan recalled that people told him, “I’ve never voted before for a Democrat in my life. I voted you.” He ultimately lost the election by 46 points. Rob Saldin is a political science professor at the University of Montana. He said that winning a race was not the only thing to consider. It’s all about running the race. Saldin: “When you don’t have even a presence in large areas of a state, or a heartbeat, then you are on your way to a steep fall.”
Tommy Flanagan is a political activist who ran last year for Montana House of Representatives. He addresses the crowd at the newly re-established Stillwater County Democratic Central Committee.

Shaylee R. Ragar/Montana Public Radio

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Tommy flanagan, an organizer and political candidate who ran last year for Montana House of Representatives, speaks to a crowd assembled for the newly revived Stillwater County Democratic Central Committee.

Shaylee R. Ragar/Montana Public Radio

Saldin says Democrats are focusing too much on races where they feel confident. He said that the path to building a strong bench of Democratic candidates for state and local elections is a long one, which can be played in small steps. You don’t have to win in rural counties to make the margins tighter. “

To make those margins smaller, you need to ensure that every Republican candidate is challenged, even if the challenger has little chance of winning. Republicans won a supermajority of the state legislature two years after sweeping statewide elections. It’s not like there aren’t many races across the country in which Democratic candidates run unopposed. But Democrats claim that the sheer number of rural races where there’s no Democratic presence on the ballot represents an existential risk. It’s not just Montana that is concerned. In Louisiana, there have been 77 candidates running unopposed in this election cycle. Most of these unopposed seats are going to Republican candidates. The Louisiana Senate has already been decided on half of its seats weeks before the October elections. A total of 68 lawmakers, including 43 Republicans, are running unopposed. 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 only left 10 seats in the state uncontested and gained a supermajority for the first 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 responsibility to make sure that Democrats are running in every part of the state, to represent our local values. “
“A little bit purple” is the goal

As Democrats work to level the playing field in Montana they rely on out-of-state support from Contest Every Race. This national campaign recruits and funds Democrats for local elections. According to the organization, 100,000 Republican candidates are not challenged each year in local school board elections and federal offices.

Contest every Race plans to spend $10,000,000 on rural Democratic organizing this cycle. The progressive Rural Democracy Initiative is a major donor for the campaign. Brit Bender, organizing director of Contest Every Race, believes that national Democrats have been discounting rural voters 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. One Democrat is left in statewide offices, U.S. Senator Jon Tester who is running for reelection 2024. Sheila Hogan is the executive director of state party and hopes that Tester’s popularity encourages 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


WRKF’s Molly Ryan

contributed to this report.