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What Happened to Montana?


It’s been one of the few joys of my political life to see my beloved West slowly move to the left. Remember that in the 1980s, when I was a kid and just starting to understand politics, Reagan was from California, Oregon had two Republican, albeit rather moderate, senators, and then proceeded to replace one of them with Gordon Smith, etc. But while parts of the West have moved far, far, far to the right, much of the West has slowly become blue. The days of Reagan are very long ago in California. Oregon and Washington are true blue. I was in New Mexico in 2000 when it looked like Nader might flip it to Bush. Today, it is true blue too. Colorado was long as bastion of conservatism, with Colorado Springs as one of the centers of the postwar far-right resurgence. Now it is bluer than the union states of the Midwest. Nevada and Arizona have even come along. It’s really quite remarkable.

I always thought that if one more state turned bluish, it would be Montana. That’s because of its long history of political moderation, that it largely avoided the far-right turn of Idaho and Utah in the 80s, and that it consistently elected Democrats in tough situations, including but not only Jon Tester. But that has not happened. Instead, Montana has turned hard-right very late and while it is fueled by a number of factors, a significant part of it is extremely wealthy far-right figures moving there and gaining outsized influence in its politics, including the loathsome journalist-assaulting governor, New Jersey’s Greg Gianforte and one of its representatives in Congress, Maryland extremist Matt Rosendale. Given Montanans’ general disdain for the east coast, I have trouble seeing how it has become the perfect place for right-wing east coast assholes. But here we are. And why Montana? The New York Times Magazine explores this, although in slightly different terms than I might. And it’s pretty telling.

During the 2021 legislative session, Republicans introduced a conservative wish list of bills. Along with the ban on transgender athletes, which has been blocked by the courts, they passed a bill that abolished an independent judicial-nomination commission, allowing the governor to directly appoint judges to vacant positions. Another bill increased the tax-credit limit for a private scholarship fund for K-12 schools from $150 to $2 million by 2023 — a boon to faith-based institutions. A majority of private schools in the state are Christian, and in 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a restriction on Montana religious schools’ receiving funding from such tax-credit programs. (The Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious-liberty nonprofit that the Gianfortes have supported, filed an amicus brief in support of the victorious plaintiffs.)

There were also bills banning same-day voter registration and paid ballot collection — measures that are considered essential for tribal communities because of the great distances between many reservations and polling places. After Gianforte signed the voting restrictions into law, Keaton Sunchild, a member of the Rocky Boy’s Chippewa-Cree Tribe and at the time the political director for Western Native Voice, called the laws “a coordinated, pretty overt way of trying to tamp down the enthusiasm and power of the Native vote.” Western Native Voice, along with other advocacy groups, filed suit, and a judge has since blocked the laws as unconstitutional.

Judges may have slowed the Legislature’s momentum, but Henry Kriegel, an influential lobbyist with Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers group, told me that 2021 was the group’s most successful session in Montana in a decade, citing several bills that restricted government regulation. Gianforte often frames his agenda in similar terms. “Government doesn’t create opportunity,” he told the delegates in Billings. “Let’s just get out of the way.”

In the months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Gianforte signed several laws restricting reproductive rights, including a bill requiring health care providers to offer women the opportunity to view an ultrasound before deciding to terminate a pregnancy. Groups including Planned Parenthood brought suit, and a Montana district court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the laws as unconstitutional. But Knudsen, the attorney general, began a counteroffensive, asking the state Supreme Court to overrule the judge — and to reconsider the 1999 case that linked abortion to the State Constitution’s right to privacy. (The court declined to lift the injunction and has not signaled that it would reconsider its 1999 decision.) “We’ve got a real judge problem in this state,” Knudsen, who frequently complains about “judicial activism,” said at a firearm-advocacy event last May. Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor and attorney general who was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2002 and 2003, has criticized Knudsen’s attacks on the judiciary as dangerous for the rule of law.

Montana’s new right-wing stridency, together with the Covid-era surge in remote work and the popularity of “Yellowstone,” has encouraged the influx of new residents. Data about their political leanings is difficult to come by, but in May, Knudsen pointed to the strong Republican showing in the 2020 elections as evidence that conservatives were seeking shelter in Montana. In 2021, Flathead County, which is deeply conservative, surpassed the majority Democratic Gallatin County, home to the tech hub of Bozeman, in its rate of population growth.

Now, you might think this reference to Yellowstone is silly. But it is not. I recently read Justin Farrell’s Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West and it is quite telling. Basically, what you have is very rich people, often billionaires and usually deeply committed to some form of hard-right libertarianism that tells themselves that all their money is because of their hard work and that the government is the enemy, have bought up pretty much all the available land around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They create enormous conservation easements, but they also create the nation’s highest income inequality and they just can’t see past their own ideologies to see the problems this creates. Well, the thing is that the area around Jackson isn’t really that large. Much of Wyoming isn’t all that nice and it’s far away from the amenities the extremely wealthy want. But over the Yellowstone National Park into Montana, oh yeah! And that’s where a lot of these people are moving. They are turbocharging Montana’s race to the right with their money and their commitments.

And don’t fool yourself–these people aren’t that smart. They are watching Costner on Yellowstone and are like, I could be that guy but even better because I am real and rich and Republican. So they move there and do that.

It’s all quite distressing. It’s also going to be very interesting to see whether Tester, who is a very good politician for Montana, can win another term in the Senate next year. Don’t count him out–he is on election #4 and there are liberals moving into places such as Missoula and Bozeman. But Montana has become like Idaho when it threw out Frank Church or Utah when it threw out Frank Moss. It’s just crazy land out there and it’s hard to see a return to sanity anytime soon.

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