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MTN News analyzes the political lean of proposed congressional districts

One map each from Dems, GOP
Montana State Capitol
Posted at 4:58 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-03 20:57:29-04

HELENA — In the new western Montana congressional district proposed by Republican redistricting commissioners, Democratic candidates running for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate in 2018 would have won, according to voting data analyzed by MTN News.

And, at least a couple of Democrats running statewide contests in 2016 elections would have won in that district as well, according to the MTN News analysis.

So, does that make the new GOP proposal “competitive” in one district – a goal that Democrats on the Districting and Apportionment Commission say should be met?

Not really, says Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson, who, with his fellow Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller, have submitted a different map they say creates a more level playing field for the new western district.

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Democratic redistricting Commissioner Joe Lamson.

“While the Republican proposal is more favorable to Democrats (than their earlier plan), it’s still a hard lean of a Republican district,” he told MTN News. “The Democrats are always going to be in the downhill position, in any race.”

The MTN News analysis shows that most Democratic candidates that ran statewide in Montana in 2016 and 2018 would have fared better by two to three points in the proposed western district drawn by the Democrats – and some still would have lost.

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Jeff Essmann, Republican redistricting commissioner.

Republican Commissioner Jeff Essmann says the Democratic proposal essentially “gerrymanders” more Democratic voters into the western district, by carving in the cities of Helena and Bozeman, and that the GOP proposal gives Democrats a reasonable shot at winning, without trying to stack the deck.

“(Their proposal) fails to meet any criteria except, `I want a district that makes sure a Democrat can win,’” he said.

Regardless of which side one takes, the almost-final decision on Montana’s two new congressional districts likely will be made Thursday by the five-member commission, which meets at the Capitol in Helena.

Commission Chair Maylinn Smith will try to craft a consensus on which proposal – or, possibly, a new, slightly adjusted proposal – will be adopted and face a final hearing next week, before the commission must adopt it by Nov. 14. The district will be in effect for the 2022 elections.

The commission has been working for months to craft two new districts, after Montana gained a district in the wake of the 2020 Census. The state has had one statewide congressional district since 1992.

If there’s no agreement between the commission’s two Republicans and two Democrats, Smith will have to break the tie on the final boundaries.

At this point, two proposals – one from the commission’s Democratic members and one from the Republican members – are before the commission.

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CP12, the district map submitted by Republicans.

The GOP proposal, known as CP12, has the cities of Missoula, Kalispell, Hamilton, Butte and Bozeman in the western district, but moves Helena and Lewis and Clark County into the eastern district, along with Great Falls, Billings and the rest of eastern and south-central Montana.

Helena had been in the old western district, before 1992. But since most of Montana’s population growth has been in the western part of the state, it’s inevitable that some parts of the old western district will end up in the new eastern district, to keep the districts’ population relatively the same.

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CP13, the congressional district maps submitted by Democrats.

The Democratic proposal, or CP13, places parts of Lewis and Clark and Gallatin counties into the eastern district, but leaves the Democratic-leaning cities of Helena and Bozeman in the western district, and also adds Park County (Livingston) to the western district.

MTN News analyzed voting results from several 2016 and 2018 statewide races, determining how candidates in those races would have done running in the proposed east and west congressional districts.

It didn’t analyze 2020 election results, because last year was an all-mail ballot, with record turnout, and not likely to be repeated.

Here’s some of what we found:

  • Democrats’ proposed western district: In 2016, Gov. Steve Bullock would have defeated Republican Greg Gianforte by 14 points in this district, 57 percent to 43 percent (we didn’t count any third-party candidate in our analysis).

However, Montana State University political scientist David Parker said the Bullock-Gianforte race is not indicative of true Democratic strength in the new district, because Democrats won’t have a well-known, well-funded incumbent like Bullock on the ballot.

He said more comparable races would be “down-ticket” races with lesser-known candidates, running for an open seat.

MTN examined the results for three of those races in 2016. Democratic state auditor candidate Jesse Laslovich would have beaten Republican Matt Rosendale in this western district, 52 percent to 48 percent, and Democratic state superintendent of public instruction candidate Melissa Romano would have beaten Republican Elsie Arntzen 53 percent to 47 percent. However, Democratic secretary of state candidate Monica Lindeen would have lost to Republican Corey Stapleton by nine points, 54.5 percent to 45.5 percent.

Also, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would have lost to Donald Trump by nine points – about half her actual loss margin statewide.

In the 2018 races for U.S. Senate and U.S. House, Democrat Jon Tester would have won the district by 18 points over Republican Matt Rosendale and Democrat Kathleen Williams would have defeated U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte by seven points.

  • Republicans’ proposed western district: Bullock and Romano would have won their 2016 races, by a respective 10 and two points. But Rosendale would have edged Laslovich by about 700 votes, squeaking out a victory with 50.1 percent of the vote.

Stapleton would have defeated Lindeen by a 10-point margin and Trump would have defeated Clinton by 12 points.

Yet in the 2018 U.S. Senate and House races, both Democrats would have won – Tester by 14 points over Rosendale, 57 percent to 43 percent, and Williams over Gianforte, 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent.

Parker, however, said the Tester-Rosendale race also is something of an outlier, when it comes to measuring Democratic chances in the new congressional district, because Tester in 2018 was a popular two-term incumbent.

  • Democrats’ proposed eastern district: This district is going to lean Republican, no matter what, and in all of the races MTN News examined, GOP candidates would have won by substantial margins in the district.

For example, Stapleton and Rosendale would have won their 2016 races by 20 percentage points. The closest contest would have been between Bullock and Gianforte in 2016, with Gianforte winning by six percentage points, 53 percent to 47 percent.

  • Republicans’ proposed eastern district: This one leans Republican, of course, but less so than the Democrats’ plan – because the Democratic proposal places more Democratic-leaning precincts into the western district, leaving them out of the eastern-district equation.

Republicans still would have won all of the races examined by MTN News, but two of them would have been relatively close: Bullock would have lost to Gianforte in the 2016 governor’s race by two points, and Tester would have lost to Rosendale in the 2018 Senate race by three points.

However, both Bullock and Tester were strong Democratic incumbents – something that’s just not going to exist in any eastern district.