Left hanging

Republican defections and the balance of power



Last week I promised an update on what the outcome of the elections means for the Montana Legislature “once the dust settled.” Well, not all the dust has settled, as a few recounts remain in play, but for now it looks like the Democrats will hold one-vote majorities in both the Senate and House. What’s interesting is that the Republicans will be denied power by the defection of two members who have, for diametrically opposed reasons, left their former party hanging.

Montanans will recall that during the last legislative session the Senate was controlled by a 27-24 Democrat majority while the House was split 50-50 between the parties. The Republicans were denied an outright majority in the House when a court ruling favored Democrat Jeannie Windham over Constitutional candidate Rick Jore, who had previously served as a Republican in the mid-’90s.

In the event of an even split, the law gives the party of the governor the powerful Speaker of the House position, and thus it went to Democrats. But in a scandalous bit of political chicanery, three defecting Democrats voted with the Republicans to elect Gary Matthews, a conservative eastern Montana Democrat, as Speaker, thus saddling the Democrats with a leader many didn’t support.

This time around, provisional ballots appear to have given Rep. Emelie Eaton, a Laurel Democrat, a tie vote with her Republican opponent. While a recount is certain, in cases of a tie the governor appoints the winner. If the recount goes against Eaton, the Republicans will have the majority in the House. But if the tie prevails, it is certain Gov. Schweitzer will appoint Eaton, thus ensuring the Democrats the majority—and leadership—of the chamber.

But here’s where it gets squirrelly. Under the rules of last session’s evenly split House, D’s and R’s received evenly split committee chairmanships and memberships. Those rules are still in effect until new rules receive a majority vote to supersede them. And therein lies the rub. If Eaton’s vote withstands the recount, the Dems will have a 50-49 majority with the final seat occupied by Rick Jore, the former Republican who turned to the Constitution Party because he felt the Republicans didn’t keep their promises to reduce the size and cost of government. If Jore votes with Republicans—as he’s indicated he’s likely to do most of the time—the Dems won’t have the votes to adopt new rules that would give them committee chairs as well as majorities on every committee.

Meanwhile over in the Senate, Sam Kitzenberg, a Glasgow Republican, has announced that he’s switching parties and will become a Democrat because “I’m a moderate and there is no room left in the Republican Party for moderates.” Kitzenberg’s switch has infuriated would-be Republican leader Cory Stapleton, who called the move “outrageous” and said he imagined Kitzenberg’s constituents “feel duped.”

Duped or not, the effect of Kitzenberg’s switch is dramatic—suddenly, instead of the 25-25 tie vote, which would have required split committee chairs and party equality on all committees, the Democrats now have the majority, giving them all the chairmanships as well as majorities on every committee.

But while things look rosy for now, the same type of shenanigans we saw in the House last session appear to be bubbling to the surface in the Senate. Missoula Democrat Vicky Cocchiarella has announced that she’s seeking the powerful President of the Senate position. While Cocchiarella says she isn’t looking toward a “divide and conquer thing” and would like to win with the votes of just Democrats, she also said she “wouldn’t turn away support from Republicans”—which could set up the kind of debacle experienced in the Speaker’s race last session.

Fellow Democrats Sen. Mike Cooney and Sen. Jim Elliot say they’re also interested in the President of the Senate position, but haven’t made their decisions final yet. It’s unlikely that either would try to win the position by courting Republicans, so if it came down to it, Cocchiarella’s apparent willingness to do so could bring her a victory—albeit one attained through political artifice rather than popularity.

One way or another the House and Senate will elect their leaders and appoint committee chairs on Nov. 27, when they caucus in Helena. Until then, barring any dramatic changes due to recounts or the discovery of additional provisional ballots, it looks like the Democrats will be in total control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in more than 20 years.

This bodes well for Gov. Schweitzer, who will be headed into a session to enact his budgetary and policy goals with Democrat majorities instead of having to fight the Republican majorities—or even ties—that were effectively used to bottle up legislation both in committees and on the floor of the House last session.

With the majorities, however, come certain dangers. Given the significant projected state budget surplus, the pressure to spend on programs and issues of importance to Democrats will be hard to deny. While it is true the governor holds the veto pen, it is equally true that the Legislature is a separate branch of government, and its collective priorities may not necessarily be the same as Schweitzer’s. Moreover, even the threat of a veto—especially when one’s own party is in charge—is heavy-handed and won’t be much appreciated. And of course when you have one-party rule, as the national Republicans just found out, there’s really no one else to blame. Since Democrats will dominate the coming session, it is they, for better or worse, who will be either praised or damned by its outcome.

We’ll see how it shakes out in the coming weeks, but for now the Dems have the majorities and the power they bring. And ironically, it’s the defection of two of their own—Jore and Kitzenberg—that has left the Republicans hanging.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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