Attempts to breath life into failed jungle primary bill and bill targeting third parties fail

By: - April 24, 2023 10:15 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

A proposal to try to block U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in the 2024 election again failed to get off the ground in a legislative committee Monday — after being tabled last week.

House and Senate committees met with the premise of potentially reviving bills proposed by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, one of which would have targeted Democrat and incumbent Sen. Tester’s upcoming re-election bid with a “jungle primary.” Neither made it off the table.

House Republicans in the House State Administration Committee caucused prior to a motion to remove consideration on Senate Bill 565, but without a quorum, which shut out the press and public from viewing deliberations.

The Senate State Administration Committee was set to consider reviving a concept from Hertz, previously in Senate Bill 566, that would have made it so only the top two vote getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election for the upcoming U.S. Senate race featuring Tester.

The plan was to insert the idea from SB566 into a different bill, House Bill 774.

However, the committee couldn’t get the votes to get HB774, set to be amended, off the table. Three Republicans, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, and Sen. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, joined Democrats to keep the bill tabled, 6-4.

“I liked the concept, I like the idea, it’s just too much at the 11th hour,” Manzella said of her vote.

House Bill 774, from Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, was originally intended to hold all elections on either a primary or general ballot in even years, which would have changed the timeline for municipal and special elections.

An explainer on the amendments to senators that was placed on each of their desks summarized them as:

  • HB 774.2.8 deletes all of HB 774 and inserts SB 566, except that it does not have a termination date.
  • HB 774.2.10 deletes all of HB 774 and inserts SB 566, except that it does not have a termination date and provides for a top two primary for federal representatives in addition to federal senators. This amendment is based partially on an amendment drafted for SB 566 previously — SB 566.1.3.

Hertz’s SB 566 was widely critiqued for outside influence from Washington, D.C., as drafting emails showed influence from Charles Denowh, finance director for Montana’s Republican congressional delegation, Rep. Matt Rosendale and Sen. Steve Daines.

Denowh is registered as a lobbyist with the Montana Group and previously served as executive director of the Montana Republican Party.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said following the meeting that the amendment was entirely his idea. The amendment,  ultimately never introduced, was formally requested by Cuffe.

In House State Administration later Monday morning, Chair Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Townsend, moved to bring another Hertz bill, Senate Bill 565, off the committee’s table for consideration Monday morning.

SB 565 would have increased the threshold of signatures independent candidates need to get on the ballot.

The committee voted 11-7 to open up consideration on the bill. Rep. Zack Wirth, R-Wolf Creek, voted with Democrats against doing so. Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, paused before voting yes. When asked about his vote, Frazer said he was open to discussion continuing on the bill but was against the policy.

Republicans moved to recess the meeting to caucus and discuss the bill. Dooling had a conversation with Rep. Gary Parry, R- Colstrip, and Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, before walking into the caucus meeting about the number of legislators that would be present in the room. Dooling confirmed Parry would be a “yes,” then Parry and Phalen returned to the committee room.

Once in the room where Republicans were caucusing, Dooling told members of the press that since they didn’t have a quorum present, the press could not attend the meeting.

Following the caucus meeting, Dooling withdrew her motion to reconsider SB 565.

Following the meeting, Dooling said that their closed caucus was “standard” and the press doesn’t attend all of their caucuses.

For now, both concepts remain tabled.

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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.