Can Donald Trump help Democrats retake the Montana House?

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Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration 34 legislative districts across the United States have gone from Republican to Democrat. President Trump’s unique drag on Republican candidates from top to bottom is presenting a path for Democrats to make significant gains in the Montana House of Representatives.

Part of this impressive red to blue total is from regularly scheduled elections in New Jersey and Virginia, but much of it is from Democrats exceeding their 2016 performance in special elections.

Democrats were not successful in the special election between Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist to replace Ryan Zinke, but there’s a distinct difference between the ability to influence local elections and federal elections. Montana Democrats shouldn’t be dissuaded by Quist’s recent loss. Just check the recent headlines:

“Special Elections So Far Point To A Democratic Wave In 2018” FiveThirtyEight, 12/13/2017
“Why Democrats Keep Winning Special Elections” The Hill, 1/21/2018
“All Signs Point To Big Democratic Wins In 2018” Bloomberg, 1/29/2018

This includes Republican seats won by Democrats in Florida, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Washington and Wisconsin, which could include answers for how well Democrats can do in Montana.

The application isn’t one-to-one. There’s no guarantee the results of a state legislative election in Oklahoma portend 2018 results in Montana. It’s more of a long distance view through foggy binoculars.

So let’s dive in and cross apply state legislative results in special elections nationwide to Montana’s upcoming elections.

Ground rules:

    • We assume all Democratic seats (41 House seats) will remain blue and only look at potential pickup opportunities.
    • We’ve determined the “Dem Difference” of a special election by subtracting the November 2016 Democratic performance from the Democratic performance in the winning special election.
    • We add the “Dem Difference”from a given special election to the Montana 2016 legislative results to speculate at potential future results.
    • We’ve shaded green all the races where the Dem Diff will produce a victory. We consider a Democratic victory to be any performance above 49.55%, which is what Bozeman Democrat Chris Pope lost with last year. This was the closest loss any Democrat in Montana suffered last year and putting the number slightly below 50% controls for any third party candidates.
    • This is solely based on public election results. There are proprietary means of evaluating projected performance which are not considered for this project.
    • “Dem Per 2016” is the portion of the vote the Democratic candidate for Montana House received in 2016 in the respective district.
    • The columns represent special elections where Democrats turned a red seat blue. Example: OK SD44 is the Oklahoma 44th Senate District.

The spreadsheet:

From all the green on the spreadsheet it’s clear there’s gains to be made in the age of President Donald Trump.

The split of the Montana House is currently 59 Republicans and 41 Democrats. Which means it’s nine seats to a tied body.

Six of the seven applied Dem Difference numbers in the spreadsheet would make the chamber at least a tie. If you believe Democrats will run campaigns on par with the special election for Oklahoma’s 44th Senate district, where the blue victor outperformed the 2016 Democrat by 12.78 points, then you’re talking a worthwhile Democratic majority.

These numbers seem outlandish at first glance, but when you look at the performance of Governor Steve Bullock in these house districts its not inconceivable. In each of the eleven House districts where the Democrat candidate for House received between 25% and 40% of the vote Governor Bullock received above 45% of the vote.

Hell, if eight of the Democratic candidates in 2016 had received the same share of the vote as Governor Bullock did in their district then the Republicans would have a single seat advantage in the Montana House right now.

When you take a look at the districts Democrats need to capture, it’s a tough road. You have to imagine Republicans are favored to retain their majority and past Democratic performance has been poor enough to create skepticism of future performance.

The message from this data is that quality Democratic candidates and quality campaigns can make up ground with a tailwind at their back.

This spreadsheet doesn’t mean Democrats are destined for the unexpected. It does mean recruiting, campaigns, and fundraising is going to matter for every Democrat running for statehouse.

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About the author

Max Croes

Max is the founder of Power Street Strategies a political and public communications consulting firm based in Helena. You can find his very biased opinions on the Houston Rockets at The Dream Shake and his thoughts on his cats (loves them) and the Star Wars prequels (loves them even more) on Twitter @CroesFire.

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