I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed lizards trying to sell car insurance and even found myself yearning to see a few ads for little blue pills or couples watching a sunset from his-and-hers bathtubs.
I am weary of words that seem to have lost all meaning and context like “radical” “D.C.” and “freedom,” which are relative to the person or semi-anonymous groups behind the political ads that flooded the airwaves and filled mailboxes during the 2022 election season.
Election Day is over, and once again, what everyone thought would happen did not – and we’re all the better for it. While it’s time to forget the ads, it’s not time to forget what we learned.
MAGA and Montana
While the national election narrative predicted a “red wave” of Republicans, which included capturing a decisive majority in the U.S. House, that wasn’t the case. As I write, the power balance is still uncertain, owing to a still very fractured and divided country. That, most of all, is the take-away – that Americans still very much disagree about the direction the country should go.
However, with a few notable exceptions like J.D. Vance in Ohio beating a well positioned Democrat, the power of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” brand is now more in question, even if those results didn’t exactly match the mood of Montana. Has Trump’s brand tarnished nationally? Probably. Whether the death-grip of his leadership will continue for Republicans will be part of the fascinating mix going forward, but clearly voters sent a message that it may be time for a different direction with new faces.
This election – more so than any in recent memory – seems to give everyone something to love and conversely, something to hate. We can all look at the results and see what we want. It’s stunning to me that nearly 2 million people can vote for the barely comprehensible Herschel Walker, and yet that same brand of politics was roundly beaten back in Arizona, which had become the leading edge of far-right politics.
In Montana, Rep. Matt Rosendale won with an estimated 57 percent vote. Worries of a three- or four-way race splitting the ticket never materialized, and for being seen as aloof and unpopular, you wouldn’t know it by how easily he cruised to victory. Meanwhile, Democrat Monica Tranel gave former and maybe future Rep. Ryan Zinke a Democratic battle unlike an establishment Republican has seen in a long time.
That demonstrates that for all the talk of Democrats being weak or ineffective in the state, the real challenge is for the party to find strong candidates. Tranel and Penny Ronning were two excellent candidates who made the races interesting, engaging and conversational. Democrats will need to develop a deep bench.
To wit: The state’s Legislature will have a Republican supermajority – something predicted. As much as Republicans would like to congratulate themselves — and they should — the supermajority was equally about the Democrats’ lack of candidates. In 14% of the Senate and nearly 30% of the House, there were no contested races. This represents a years-long problem for the state Democratic Party: It can’t win the races in which it doesn’t run.
A fifth third-party?
Montana saw a strong showing by Libertarian John Lamb, who some may try to blame if Tranel loses. Montana has had both Libertarian and Green Party candidates who enter races and thus begins an endless conversation about whether they siphon votes from Democrats or Republicans.
Meanwhile, Independent Gary Buchanan did a remarkable job in his four-way race against Sam Rankin, Rosendale and Ronning. By Wednesday morning, the liberal camps of Montana had transformed into a circular firing squad, which pinned the loss on Buchanan, who they saw as some kind of political interloper. But doing the math reveals that all of Rosendale’s opponents’ votes combined wouldn’t have been enough to knock him out of Congress.
If Buchanan had been affiliated with one of the third parties, he’d be making national headlines as a Libertarian or some other party candidate who captured nearly 1-in-every-4 votes, amounting to 45,000 supporters. By any Montana standard, that is an awesome showing and should suggest to politicians of any party that there is a large swath of Treasure State residents who are ready to try an independent who isn’t hidebound to party politics. Think about this: If Buchanan had been a Libertarian and captured 22% of the vote, people would be losing their minds, and yet, what’s the difference in labels? The bigger takeaway isn’t that he lost, it’s how well he performed.
And the winner is …
If there’s any message that resounded on Tuesday, it’s that Montanans still cherish independence and privacy above all else. To many longtime residents (myself included) this feels like an affirmation of what many of us know as “the old Montana” – the live-and-let-live spirit that seems so deeply rooted here.
Voters appear to have rejected the “Born Alive” act, or Legislative Referendum 131, which seemed to be an awkward end-run around the state’s abortion protection. Despite an election that suggested a profoundly conservative electorate, Montana residents still trust their medical professionals to do their job and leave private medical decisions to the individual.
And, Montanans were content to reject the overtly partisan influence in the state Supreme Court race, leaving the moderate Ingrid Gustafson, who has been appointed by both conservative and liberal governors, on the bench.
Ironically, maybe the least covered issue – digital privacy – came away the biggest winner, being amended into the state constitution.
If we do have to design a new state flag – something that may recur during the 2023 legislative session, as it did in 2021 – we should give serious consideration to changing our motto from Oro y Plata to “Leave Me Alone.”