Montana GOP Wants to Change Election Rules Ahead of Senate Race

Helena, Mont. – Republicans usually cry when accused of rewriting election laws in favor of their candidates. But as the Montana Legislature debates a new ballot bill, even some GOP lawmakers admit that this bill appears to be designed to help them win an election—rather, one very important election.

The bill would rewrite the rules for the next US Senate election, and that election only, for 2024. The attempt to oust Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, is expected to be one of the strictest in the country.

The law would shift the contest from a traditional election to a “top two” primary system, making it very difficult for third parties to reach a general election vote. Some believe the system will prevent the state's ardent Libertarian Party from sucking up votes from the Republican nominee.

While supporters of the bill say it makes the election fairer, both Republican and Democrat lawmakers in Helena claim the bill smacks of political interference. Some took offense at the involvement of Washington's agents, particularly allies of Senator Steve Daines. A Montana Republican and head of the National Republican Senator Committee, Mr. Daines is leading the party's campaign to win control of the Senate in 2024.

Brad Molnar, a Republican state senator who opposed the bill, criticized Washington's meddling in Montana politics, saying that if the national Republicans got involved, “we would lose.” He predicted that the bill would backfire on Republicans if angry Libertarians flocked to the Democrats: “They're going to be mad. Why not? I'm not a libertarian, and I'm angry.”

The bill's sponsor, State Senator Greg Hertz, said he was trying to ensure that the Montana senator would win with more than 50 percent of the vote and also reduce party interference with third-party candidates.

Mr Hertz said he had drafted the bill to apply only to the upcoming Senate race because he saw it as a trial run. He expects the Legislature to examine extending the system to congress, state legislatures, and other state races in the future.

The system will mirror the California primary, where all candidates from each party appear on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters face off in the general election.

The bill passed the Montana Senate last week by a narrow margin, with seven Republican senators voting against it. On Friday, at a House committee hearing, Mr Hertz introduced an amendment that would apply the top two system to all future Senate elections, not just the 2024 election. The amendment also formally required the legislature to explore expanding the system to other offices in the future.

The trial lasted just over 90 minutes, with several opponents, including the head of the Libertarian Party, testifying against the bill. Montana Republicans and others testified in favor. The committee voted to vote on the bill on Monday. The state governor, a Republican, has yet to weigh in.

But the force that composes the bill and pushes it is very strong.

Chuck Denowh, a lobbyist working for the Mr. Daines year 2020 and with ties to the Montana Republican Party, has worked closely with Mr. Hertz. At one point he suggested a critical change that focused Bill on Mr. Race's race. Tester, according to an email reviewed by The New York Times.

“We want it to apply only to elections to the United States Senate,” said Mr. Denowh in an email sent on March 26 to several MPs, including Mr. Hertz. “We want the sun to set in 2025,” he added. It is not clear who is meant by “we”, and Mr Denowh refuses to answer questions.

Mr. Hertz quickly agreed with the changes and asked State Senator Steven J. Fitzpatrick, the Senate majority leader, copied on an email chain, to make the newly reworked proposal a “priority bill”.

The sudden change and swift reintroduction after the initial fiasco on the committee took Republican lawmakers by surprise.

In a chain of text messages among the eight Republican senators, Mr Fitzpatrick addressed lawmakers' concerns by informing them that the bill “comes from Daines” and that it was “Jason Thielman's brainchild,” according to a screenshot of the text obtained by The New York Times. Mr Thielman is a long time Daines aide who is now the executive director of the NRSC

“No wonder I don't like it,” replied Senator Dan Salomon, a Republican state senator who opposed the bill.

When asked about the text messages, Mr Fitzpatrick said he never spoke directly to Mr Daines about the bill, but he believed the effort came from national Republicans.

Mr. Daines has not considered it publicly. Rachel Dumke, a spokeswoman for Mr. Daines, declined to comment.

At least two Republican lawmakers in Montana say they have been pressured by Mr. Daines to support the bill. And a Republican state senator received text messages from state Republican officials explicitly saying the bill was necessary to defeat Mr. Tester. The MP requested anonymity to disclose private discussions.

In an interview, Mr Hertz said he had been working on the issue of the election since last September, initially exploring adding a runoff election. But he acknowledged that his efforts appeared to be gaining national attention as he focused his attention on the Senate race.

“Yeah, I heard from a lot of people in DC at the time,” said Mr. Hertz. He added that he had not spoken to Mr Daines personally but had spoken to Mr Thielman many times about the status of the bill.

An NRSC spokesman, Mike Berg, declined to comment on Thielman's involvement.

Mr. Hertz said he thought the change would help third parties. “This gives them a chance in the primaries to win more votes. And if you have enough support, you will get the general vote, and that will give you the opportunity to present your case to the voters in Montana.”

A spokesman for Governor Greg Gianforte declined to respond to questions, pointing to the governor's brief statement at a news conference on Thursday.

“Several other states have tried something like this,” said Mr Gianforte. “I think it's an interesting idea, but we won't take a firm stand until we've actually seen final legislation.”

Several Republican lawmakers who supported the idea of ​​a top two electoral system balked when they noticed the proposal had been changed to apply only to the 2024 Senate election.

“If we're going to do a top two primer, I'm all for it. I think it's amazing,” said Jason Small, a Republican state senator who opposed the bill. “Thoughtfully the situation, I think, is bad if we just pick one particular race and try it there. I want to do it thoroughly.”

Several Republicans in the statehouse noted that the bill may not have much of an impact on the outcome. They cites a recent study by election website FiveThirtyEight who found that Mr. Tester would likely win all of his elections even if the Libertarian candidate did not run.

The Tester campaign accused Montana Republicans of trying to seize power.

Republicans are “trying to change local election laws to look more like California in an effort to gain political power for themselves,” said Shelbi Dantic, spokeswoman for Mr. Tester.

So far, no front-runner has emerged to challenge Mr. Testers in November. Republicans in Helena expect Representative Matt Rosendale, a conservative who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election, to explore the nomination. Tim Sheehy, a wealthy businessman and military veteran, is being recruited by some Republicans in Washington to run, as first reported by Axiosalthough he has yet to make an official announcement.

As word of the bill spread across the state, Republican lawmakers said they were receiving calls and texts from constituents who claimed they were uncomfortable with the bill. Senator Jeff Welborn, a Republican state senator, noted that the complaints didn't just come from Democrats.

Mr Welborn said he had received numerous text messages, including one from a constituent saying the bill amounted to election interference. “This man also has a Republican candidate's sign on his lawn,” said Mr. Welborn. “He sees this as a really, really bad look at Montana as a state to try this one out.”

Former Republican leaders in the state have also been vocal against them.

“This is a terrible comment about how you value the voices of your fellow citizens,” said Marc Racicot, a former Republican governor and former chairman of the RNC. “They didn't register as guinea pigs.”

Republicans who support the bill say they believe it will reduce major party interference with third-party candidates. In the past, Democrats have attempted to promote Libertarian candidates to try and divert the vote away from Republicans, and Republicans have struggled to get a Green candidate in the polls to try and draw support from Democrats.

“I think at least with the top two prelims you take some of the crap out of it,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, added, “This is dirty politics at its worst.”