Final U.S. House map: Lewis and Clark, Park to east, Gallatin to west

“We’re a tough bunch. But it’ll be much more difficult.”

By: - November 5, 2021 3:36 pm

Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission, having over the span of months argued and re-argued dozens of points, and heard hundreds upon hundreds of public comments — admonitions, advice, threats, invocations of God, etc. — has tentatively selected a congressional map to divide Montana into two U.S. House districts over the coming decade.

More precisely, the commission’s Supreme Court-appointed chair, Maylinn Smith, broke a tie, something of a tradition in the evenly partisan body, and did it on behalf of its two Republican members. Those members had advanced a map that divides Montana into an eastern and western district, generally following a precedent that was set when Montana last had two congressional districts more than 30 years ago.

The map, referred to as Congressional Proposal (CP) 12, is a variation of a publicly submitted map that Republicans mentioned but ultimately chose not to advance earlier in the process: It satisfies Democratic desires to keep fast-growing, blue-leaning Gallatin County in the western district with Missoula and Butte, but relegates Lewis and Clark and Park counties to the eastern district, moving two key liberal constituencies to a seat that will represent an expanse of deep-red plains country.

The district splits only one county: Pondera, in order to keep the Blackfeet Reservation in the western district and ensure population equality. Democrats at Thursday’s meeting doubled down on a variation of a proposal that the chair had already voted with Republicans to oppose; it would have kept Lewis and Clark and Park counties to the west with Gallatin, but split populous and conservative Flathead County, putting essentially all but Democratic-leaning Whitefish to the east. Smith again voted against the map, called CP11, instead supporting the Republican-backed proposal.

“It’s the district that I find to be the fairest for Montana based on the volumes of comments we’ve gotten,” Smith said. ” I appreciate that a lot of people are not gonna be happy with me, but that’s how we’re gonna go forward.”

Smith, a tribal attorney and former law professor, in fact began this process in the GOP’s rhetorical crosshairs: The party accused the Supreme Court of appointing a biased arbiter due to Smith previously donating to Democratic candidates for office. Ultimately, she’s proven to break ties on behalf of both party’s commissioners, though when it came down to the wire, she voted with Republicans and said she believes the CP12 map addresses “significant communities of interest.”

Having to split a smaller, rural county like Pondera is unfortunate, she said, but noted that a Pondera county commissioner had written to support CP12 regardless.

We had a small county that was agreeable to it — that’s something you weigh,” Smith said Friday morning. “The other piece that factored into my decision-making is it’s a bit of a challenge to say a county located west of the divide has less interest in western Montana than a county that’s located fairly far east of the divide.”

Democrats, who have consistently advocated for a competitive map that enables plausible victory in the western district, weren’t thrilled, though they said that the ultimate map was still a vast improvement from the proposals that Republican commissioners Dan Stusek and Jeff Essmann initially brought to the table. The GOP, which dominated statewide and legislative elections in 2020, has generally countered that competitiveness is not a mandatory requirement, and that while they may consider it per commission criteria, other goals are more important.

We’ve got a one-in-four chance that if we have a very well-organized, well-financed candidate, we can win,” said Democratic commissioner Joe Lamson. “We punch above our weight. We’re a tough bunch. But it’ll be much more difficult.”

Democrats haven’t sent a candidate to the U.S. House since the 1990s, and have gradually seen their influence slip in the state.

One individual who may take on that task of reversing that trend is Rep. Laurie Bishop, who’s currently running in the Democratic primary for the newly created western U.S. House seat. The Livingston resident is in a unique situation: under CP12, she’ll be campaigning to represent a district where she doesn’t actually reside, an arrangement allowed by the law but one that can elicit pushback in political campaigns.

“I am obviously disappointed, and I don’t think I’m alone as a Montanan, both on the results of that map and whether there’s really a competitive path there,” Bishop said, noting that there’s a historic connection between Park and Gallatin counties. “Looking at the field, I remain a strong candidate. While I don’t live in the district, my professional experience working statewide includes a ton of experience in that district working directly on the ground.”

The commission will finalize its decision after one more round of public comment on November 9. Smith said she’s only expecting to make small technical changes to the map from here on out.

Consensus and competition

“Everyone wants to be in the west,” Smith joked on Thursday. While residents of some counties would certainly dispute that claim, it’s a quip that speaks to the commission’s key challenge this year: In the old days, before Montana was relegated to a single at-large district after the 1990 reapportionment, there was an eastern and western district, an idea that many who chimed in on this year’s process are keen on reviving.

In the past, Missoula, Bozeman, Helena and Butte were generally in the west, along with the Flathead, creating a district that went for Democrats most of the time. The other district generally went the opposite way.

But by the time Montana regained its second seat decades later, its politics and demography had changed: counties in the west have blossomed in population, while those in the east are much further behind.  The constitution requires practicable population equality between the two districts — in other words, some county traditionally thought of as western would have to go, or at least be split, or the commission would have to abandon the east-west framework.

“If we listen to all the comments, if we could draw a district that kept the Flathead intact, kept Blackfeet and CSKT intact and in the west, kept Lewis and Clark and Jefferson, Broadwater in the west, Park and Gallatin in the west, everybody would be happy,” said Essmann. “Only problem is we’d have 110,000 extra people in that district and we’d fail to meet our constitutional duty as spelled out to us by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Naturally, residents from any given county generally wanted their counties preserved. Conservative constituents and lawmakers from Flathead County bussed down to Helena to chastise the commission for even thinking of dividing their valley, for example, while others heartily protested splitting off Lewis and Clark or Park counties.

“CP11 I feel is a total failure,” testified Connie Ciabatoni of Big Fork. “It puts Flathead in the east, where it has nothing in common economically, politically or culturally with the east.”

At first, Republicans proposed a map that created an east-west split through Gallatin and Cascade counties, and Democrats brought forth one that grouped southwestern Montana’s population centers in a geographically compact district that still leaned slightly toward the GOP. Over the course of weeks, debate among the four partisan members and urging by Smith to find a consensus map narrowed the gap between the two sides — though Democrats insisted that Republicans weren’t making real compromises and vice versa.

By Thursday’s meeting, there were three maps in primary contention: CP11, CP12 and CP13, a map that Democrats introduced as a compromise last week that left the Flathead whole and in the west but split Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties to keep the Democratic bases in Helena and Bozeman connected to Missoula and Butte.

Smith had told the commissioners previously that she felt competitiveness to be an important criteria; Republicans somewhat reluctantly adopted the framework, backing up their recent proposals, like their Democratic colleagues, with election results and partisan indices. She said she was convinced that CP11 and CP12 would have similar fundamentals, citing evidence from the Republican commissioners that Democrats would have won the U.S. House special election in 2017 and the regular election the following year if held in the western district as drawn in the finalist map.

Democrats rejected the use of results from the special election as a metric of competitiveness, and said the western district in CP12 would still have an undue partisan lean.

When you look at the last four regular races — nobody, when they’re doing analysis, looks at special elections — of the last four, the Democrats have won one out of four,” Lamson said. 

Even counting victories in 2017 and 2018, Republicans would have won the district in 2020, 2016 and 2014. Essmann argued that the district would only grow more competitive as Gallatin County grows.

“There’s no way we could predict the future,” said Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson. “However, to my mind, trends in both Montana and the U.S. would suggest that the Trump vote may be a better predictor for future election outcomes than looking at statewide races when there was a lot more splitting of tickets than we have now.”

Johnson said he was surprised at Smith’s pick, and that he’s doubtful a Democrat could truly overcome the Republican fundamentals in the western district. Even if Bozeman’s population further explodes, there’s no guarantee that only Democrats will benefit.

“Some of those trend lines don’t emerge as fast as people think,” he said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.