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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

A Red Wave Washes Over Montana, Handing Republicans Big Wins

Greg Gianforte is the first Republican to be elected governor of Montana since 2004.
Greg Gianforte is the first Republican to be elected governor of Montana since 2004.

Montana has long prided itself as a purple state, handing wins to both Democrats and Republicans over the past few decades. 

But on Tuesday night, conservatives won every key race in the state, nabbing a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat, Montana's lone congressional seat, and the governorship.

"A lot of the blue collar, populist issues that helped fuel the Democrats for years [in Montana] have been sort of co-opted by the Republican Party," said Lee Banville, a political analyst and journalism professor at the University of Montana. "It speaks to a real shift in parts of the electorate away from the traditional Democratic Party and towards the Republican Party."

For the first time in 16 years, a Republican was elected governor, putting the party firmly in control of the state government. Greg Gianforte, a current U.S. representative and former tech entrepreneur from Bozeman, will take the helm in January after defeating current Democratic Lieutenant Gov. Mike Cooney. 

Incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines fended off a challenge by Montana's current Democratic governor, Steve Bullock – a tight race that shattered records for fundraising and outside spending.

Republican Matt Rosendale beat Democrat Kathleen Williams for the state's lone congressional seat. 

In the past five years, Montana has had 16 statewide races. Democrats have only won two of them, according to Banville. He argues the state is becoming more conservative and Democrats need to go back to the drawing board. 

"Their batting average is quite bad right now," he said. "There will be a period of assessing – do they continue to try and be the party of pragmatism and moderation or do they go the Bernie Sanders, liberal populist approach and try to fire up their supporters and get them to turnout during elections?" 

Banville also said it's too early to tell whether the surge in Republican wins is partially owed to a pandemic-related influx of new residents from out of state. However, there was a big uptick in newly registered voters in the Flathead Valley, which is an epicenter of this growth. 

"The assumption is that people who move to Montana may make the state more purple, right? They come from California and they buy a nice house and they move here and they bring their liberal politics with them, and I'm exactly sure that's true," Banville said. 

He points to past influxes to both the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys in Montana, making those places more conservative. In North Idaho, in-migration from California has caused a similar phenomenon as people flee liberal state politics in search of conservative bastions. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.