Cascade County goes ‘bright red’ on election night

By: - Sunday November 13, 2022 10:10 am

Cascade County goes ‘bright red’ on election night

By: - 10:10 am

The Cascade County Courthouse covered in snow in 2021. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

The Cascade County Courthouse covered in snow in 2021. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

The race for Clerk and Recorder in Cascade County is in possible recount territory — with Republican Sandra Merchant, a business woman from upstate New York, squeaking ahead of Democrat and 16-year veteran of the office Rina Moore by 20 votes.

Republicans in Cascade County saw wins across the board this week, with every partisan candidate in the election winning down ballot in a county that used to be seen as “purple.”

Experts say the county is following national trends for rural voters going red.

Although Democrats say tight races show nothing’s set in stone, they also cite diminishing union support as a factor. Meanwhile, at least one Republican said the economy and federal oversight brought voters out for the GOP.

The red streak isn’t new, but it wasn’t too long ago that Democrats saw wins here, too.

In Cascade County, the last statewide general election in 2020 was a Republican sweep as well, with 58 percent of voters choosing President Donald Trump. In 2022, Republican incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale brought in 54 percent of the vote.

When Trump was on the ballot in 2016, 57 percent of the county went red in the presidential race, but 54 percent backed Democrat Steve Bullock for Governor. Six years ago, both parties won tight races down the ballot.

Cascade County Democrats Chairperson Ron Szabo said a lot of the races were close this year until rural districts rolled in, and they were “extremely straight Republican.”

“It bothers me that the voters in that area seem to be looking at national implications instead of who the people are that are running,” Szabo said. “There was a lot of experience that was cast aside, a lot of expertise, and that’s unfortunate.”

Szabo said Moore’s experience as clerk and recorder was “unsurpassed in the state.” Moore said Wednesday there’s still provisional and military ballots to be counted on Monday, but she will not be requesting a recount herself since she trusts the tabulators.

Moore’s opponent, Merchant, did not respond to an interview request by phone on Thursday.

Merchant, whose website said she spent six years in the Air Force Reserve, ran in part on customer satisfaction. She touted her organizing skills from various jobs, including operating a freelance horse business and home schooling group, and her website listed an endorsement from Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras.

“To pick somebody that’s out of state that’s an unknown that has no experience just tells me people don’t even care. It’s just whether you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Moore said, attributing her loss to people voting straight Republican down the ballot. “That’s sad because I’m walking away with 16 years of institutional knowledge and a professional license that help the office and help the taxpayers save money, and that’s going to go by the wayside.”


Historically, Montanans have prided themselves on being independent and splitting tickets.

But political analyst and Associate Professor at Carroll College Jeremy Johnson said more recently, fewer voters are willing to split tickets, both in Montana and across the country, making it harder for down ballot candidates, even if they have more experience.

“These macro trends become harder for individual candidates to separate (from) because of less ticket splitting and getting swamped by all sorts of other narratives,” said Johnson, of Helena.

Rep. Steve Gist, R-Cascade, won re-election by 57 votes, and he said his win and his party’s success in the region were due to multiple factors, one being the snow storm. However, he also cited voter concerns over the economy and federal overreach, and he said a small group of legislators are working with lawmakers in other states to push back.

“The federal government provides half of what we operate on for two years, which is a lot of money,” Gist said. “How do we become more independent of that?”

Gist is re-entering the legislature as part of a supermajority, which will have the power to place possible Constitutional amendments on the ballot. Gist said any changes will be up to voters, but he wanted to make sure that ballot language is understandable.

He called out LR-131, the measure that included rhetoric on abortion, as not being written clearly enough. Voters opposed the “Born Alive” Act, which the medical community said would hurt its ability to care for newborns and would harm families whose infants wouldn’t survive.

Ultimately, Gist said the victories come down to a spirit of community. That Thursday afternoon, he was at a Pachyderm event with what he estimated were 70 to 80 people attending.


National political narratives were evident in Cascade County races, too.

Although he disputes the GOP wins indicate a red trend, Szabo pointed to another experienced candidate who lost on Tuesday, County Commissioner Don Ryan, who had previously served four terms in the Legislature.

Ryan lost to local business owner Rae Grulkowski, who was vocal in the movement against the Big Sky National Heritage Area in Cascade County and was featured in the New York Times story on the spread of misinformation surrounding NHAs last fall.

Ryan said the anti-NHA movement was part of his opponent’s success. The National Parks Service explains the designation as a “community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development,” but opponents feared it would violate their property rights.

“The Commission voted it down before I got here,” Ryan said. “The Legislature said they’re not gonna do anything about it, they won’t allow it to happen. It’s a dead issue, but somehow people were worried and concerned about that.”

Ryan said the Republican Party as a whole has been better than Democrats at tying issues to a perceived boogeyman, giving examples such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, and the vocal group of election deniers who want ballots counted by hand.

“I lost, and I still trust the machines,” Ryan said.

After scheduling an interview, Grulkowski did not return calls from the Daily Montanan.

Ryan, born in Great Falls, also attributed the losses Democrats have seen in the area in part to a loss of the union-driven working class vote.

“We were, years ago, a very union heavy neighborhood, but we lost the smelter, we lost some of the employers, we lost that base,” Ryan said. “The unions don’t have the power that they once had as far as getting people to vote in their best interest.”

Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, echoed in a statement that working-class voters are moving away from the party across the country and in Great Falls as well.

“Democrats in Montana and nationwide need to do a better job of appealing to these voters and making it clear our policy priorities address their concerns,” Hogan said in the statement.

But Hogan also said the party is proud of the candidates in the county. Although Democrats lost, she said they “vastly outperformed expectations,” running ahead of the 2020 partisan share.

MTGOP Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt was not available to discuss how Republicans turned Cascade County. However, he said in a statement the organization is proud of its candidates and volunteers “who worked tirelessly to turn out Republican voters and paint Cascade County bright red.”


Ryan said the way people consume news also impacts how candidates get their message out and connect with voters, especially in a media landscape that has dramatically diminished in recent years.

“Now if you want to get your information, you go to your cell phone, and you hit a button and the algorithms send you in a direction,” he said. “And that’s not the best way to get both sides of the story.”

He said Republicans are less likely to hold town hall meetings because they don’t want to answer questions. At the top of the ticket, Republican incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale participated in two debates in the eastern district race; he easily overcame three opponents.

With 59 percent voter participation, 2022 marked the lowest voter turnout in the county for a federal election since the midterms in 2014. Szabo said this could be in part because of the winter storm that hit the region.

Johnson said there’s no one panacea for Democrats to reverse course in rural areas, and that they’ll need to run candidates that focus on local concerns and not get lost in national issues.

But Ryan said people need to stay informed.

“A former county commissioner Harry Mitchell said this to me a long time ago, ‘Democracy is the form of government where people get what they deserve,’” Ryan said. “People have to pay attention.”

At the Elections Office, Moore has had a front-row seat to the way national politics have affected local government. If Merchant wins, Moore said Cascade County will have to lean on other counties to help the newcomer learn the ropes.

She said the county would have to hire an examining officer to help with land surveying as well. Moore is a licensed Professional Land Surveyor in Montana, which requires not only passing the exam but approval to take the test from the state’s Board of Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors.

The last year had been an “absolute nightmare” for her and her elections staff due to a group of election integrity skeptics who have called for hand counting paper ballots, among other unrealistic demands, Moore said.

“It’s a different world. It’s way different than when I started,” Moore said. “I’m sad to be leaving and another half of me is like, and what would it have been like if I had won?”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.