Red Tide

Appraising the waterfront after the Republican surge.



Oh, how fickle we voters are. Two years after giving Democrats near-complete control over the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government in the name of "change," we turn around and, in the House of Representatives, swing power back to the Republicans who incited voters' call for change in the first place. It's enough to make any political observer wonder if the seemingly schizophrenic American electorate needs a collective head exam.

In any event, after netting 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate last Tuesday, on top of winning an untold number of local and state races around the country, Republicans are partying like it's, well, 1994, when the party took 54 House seats. And as in 1994, this historic clobbering will have huge implications, from the Bitteroot to the Beltway.

In Montana, the most critical of those consequences will play out in Helena beginning in January, when the state Legislature convenes with Republicans controlling both the Senate and House chambers. Republicans gained 18 seats in the House—the biggest swing since 1964—and one seat in the Senate, nearly overriding Gov. Brian Schweitzer's veto power.

In this, the Indy's election postmortem, we try to make sense of what happened, and what's likely to happen as a result—while bracing ourselves for whatever we volatile voters might do next.

Down-ballot rebellion

Ravalli County's bulletproof Republican ticket

by Alex Sakariassen

Ravalli County Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff spent last Thursday evening lamenting the results of the Nov. 2 election over beers with a number of others from the courthouse in Hamilton. Grandstaff, an Independent, lost her seat to Republican Suzy Foss, but she spent little time licking her own wounds. The real topic of concern was the upset in the county treasurer race that saw incumbent JoAnne Johnson trumped by her Republican opponent, Mary Hudson-Smith, whose campaign amounted to a couple of newspaper ads.

For Grandstaff, that upset shows Bitterroot voters were looking not for candidates' qualifications but for the "R" next to their names. All 14 candidates on the Republican ticket there won by wide margins.

"There's a little bit of thinking that this is what the voters wanted, that they had no idea what they were voting for and now they're going to get it," Grandstaff says. "It wasn't very smart to not look into what that job entails, who does it, what is the challenger's experience, what's her level of ability. Those questions were never asked."

But there's a twist. Ravalli County employees have always known the Republican victor—who has worked in the treasurer's office for 15 years—to be an outspoken Democrat. In a July letter to the editor in the Ravalli Republic, Deputy Treasurer Tami Kay Morgan wrote that Hudson-Smith was "running on the Republican side of the ticket for one reason—to run unopposed against our current county treasurer JoAnne Johnson." Even Johnson, who trained Hudson-Smith personally, says she's never known her political rival to lean any direction but left.

Hudson-Smith shrugs off the alleged duplicity. "I haven't considered myself anything actually, but when it came to having to run, you can't very well run nonpartisan," Hudson-Smith says. "You have to choose something."

Hudson-Smith's unsuspected triumph seems a direct result of the county GOP's highly successful election cycle message: "Vote Republican." According to the Ravalli County Elections Office, roughly 61 percent of the valley's registered voters turned out to cast their ballots, and few candidates on the left managed to secure more than 40 percent of the vote.

"It's Nancy Pelosi," Grandstaff says, chalking up the election results to national frustrations. "I'm not being a smart-ass. There weren't any real issues that people were rallying around. There were a few people making noises about zoning, but we abandoned that in 2008 and never worked towards it again. That was just not an issue. This was a nationwide Republican blitz, and we got caught up in it."

However, Terry Nelson, chairman of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee, credits the tidal wave of conservative victories not just to anti-Democrat sentiment stirred up by current national leaders but to rising local concerns over property rights. With the recent expiration of a moratorium on the county's contentious growth policy, the incoming commissioners will likely see the issue return to the fore. There's no question land-use planning issues will continue to dominate the political dialogue in Ravalli County. But with no seated Democrats on the commission, property issues will almost certainly be addressed with the conservative intent of lightening government regulations.

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