In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line

For the first time in 30 years, Montana voters will send two members to the House after explosive population growth in the state’s western half.

But the fact that the five members of the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission have to draw just one line dividing the state into two congressional districts has made the debate over where that line sits no less contentious than arguments in other states with many more residents, showcasing just how bitter and partisan the national battle over the decennial mapmaking process has become.

Those members — two Democrats, two Republicans and a nonpartisan independent chair who breaks tie votes — advanced two proposed maps for consideration in an hours-long meeting Thursday, each of which would divide the state along a north-south axis.

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Both maps create two districts that former President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE carried in the 2020 elections. Republicans and Democrats agree that an eastern district, covering most of Montana’s rural agricultural regions, would be all but guaranteed to elect a Republican. Rep. Matt Rosendale (R) plans to seek election in that district.

But the difference between the Democratic and Republican proposals advanced Thursday lies in just how likely the western district would be to favor a Republican nominee.

Under the GOP’s proposed map, the liberal enclave of Helena would be included in the eastern district, while Bozeman and Missoula would be on the western side of the divide, along with conservative Flathead County in the north. That western district favored Trump by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin in 2020, according to calculations made by the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

© Legislative Services Division

The Democratic proposal would put Helena on the western side of the divide with Bozeman and Missoula, while most of Flathead County would sit with the eastern district. That version of the western district favored Trump by a 50.5 percent to 47 percent margin in 2020.

© Legislative Services Division

The key question dividing Democrats and Republicans on the commission is just how much they should consider the competitiveness of each district, a criterion that, at the beginning of the commission’s work, they agreed should be a discretionary but not mandatory priority.

“That’s from the very beginning what we felt was most important, to create at least one of the House districts that was more competitive,” said state Sen. Pat Flowers (D). “Most Montanans appreciate competitive elections. It forces candidates to respond to the needs of all the citizens of a given district. If we have lopsided districts, frankly, that same incentive is not there.”

The presidential results themselves do not tell the full story of a state that routinely splits its ballot. Montana voters have a long history of picking Republican presidential nominees at the same time they choose Democratic senators or governors; Govs. Brian Schweitzer (D) and Steve BullockSteve BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (D) won two elections each, from 2004 to 2016, on the same day George W. Bush, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE, Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP anger with Fauci rises No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions MORE and Donald Trump carried the state’s presidential electors.

The 2020 election was the first time in 20 years that Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate won statewide elections on the same day.

“If you know anything about our election history, we typically vote Republican for president and really split the state up in statewide races. Although not as much lately,” said state Sen. Greg Hertz (R).

In interviews, three of the five commissioners told The Hill that they see little chance of a compromise ahead of the deadline later this month to choose a winning map. That likely means that the ultimate decision of which map to choose will fall to the independent fifth commissioner, Maylinn Smith, a former University of Montana tribal law professor with experience as a trained mediator appointed to the job by the state Supreme Court.

When she won the appointment, Smith took criticism from the Montana Republican Party for past donations she had made to some Democratic candidates. But after the meeting Thursday, Smith told commissioners she does not want to be the deciding vote, and that she would rather the four partisans reach agreement on which map to codify for the next decade.

That seems unlikely: Since the beginning of the redistricting process, when commissioners voted to use competition as one of their discretionary mapmaking criteria — a lower priority than the mandatory criteria like balanced populations and combining communities of interest into the same districts — the two sides have volleyed back and forth about the meaning of competitiveness. 

“For the last 30 years, the Republicans have been vehemently against two things: Fairness and competitiveness,” said Joe Lamson, the Senate Democratic nominee to the commission and a veteran of four previous redistricting panels. The GOP’s proposal this year, he said, is “classic cracking. They’re going to take 100,000 of our best votes and just put them in a deep sea of red and dilute them.”

Republicans say the Democratic commissioners elevated competitiveness from the list of discretionary considerations into a primary goal, in hopes of being able to compete for one of the state’s two seats in Congress.

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“It was very clear that competitiveness was the Democrats’ main criteria,” said Dan Stusek, the House Republican appointee to the commission. “This is something that is going to go from down here on the list in discretionary criteria to the thing we talk most about.”

Making the process more complicated is Montana’s uneven growth. Western Montana has added hundreds of thousands of new residents in recent years, while eastern communities have stayed stagnant. The last time Montana sent two members to Congress, the east-west line fell well to the east of Helena, Bozeman and Kalispell. To balance today’s populations, the line has to shift west.

“We haven’t had two congressional districts for 30 years, and when people think of the congressional districts, they sort of go back to that 1980s plan, and western Montana has grown substantially faster than eastern Montana, so that plan doesn’t work anymore,” said Kendra Miller, the House Democratic appointee on the commission. “You just can’t have an eastern Montana seat anymore. There’s a district that is going to include all over eastern Montana, but it has to include some western Montana as well.”

No Democrat has represented Montana in the U.S. House since 1996, when Republican Rick Hill replaced retiring Rep. Pat Williams (D). 

Both Democrats and Republicans said they still favor the commission process, and they praised Smith’s work as an arbiter this year. But they said they had been surprised at the partisan gap that can exist over even a single line in an atmosphere that nationalizes what has, for so long, been an intensely local affair.

“I know I, at one point, had to tone down some of the comments from somebody that aligned on my side of the aisle,” Stusek said. “I admit, I did not expect the gulf to be as wide between both sides as it is.”

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Perhaps fittingly, the commission’s Thursday meeting was interrupted just minutes after it gaveled into session — by an earthquake drill.

--Updated on Oct. 24 at 8:29 a.m.