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Can moderates survive state politics? In Montana, they may be going extinct

Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, votes on a bill on the house floor of the state capitol on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.
Thom Bridge, Independent Record
Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, votes on a bill on the house floor of the state capitol on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.

HELENA, Mont. — At just 21 years old, Mallerie Stromswold had burned out from public service during her sophomore term in the Montana legislature.

She says it boiled down to a few things — the high cost of housing and juggling school and work. But most of all, she felt a decline in her mental well-being.

"When you're struggling with that, and then decide to throw on the challenges of serving," it becomes a lot, the young Republican says, "especially the way I chose to serve."

Stromswold voted against her fellow Republicans' efforts to limit the rights of transgender Montanans and for a Democrat's bill aiming to protect the rights of minors. Her style of serving, she says, "was not aligned with how those around me would have preferred me to at times."

It all became too much and Stromswold announced her resignation earlier this year. "I'm big on principles more than anything. If you're going to say, 'it's my body, my choice, it's my body, my choice, it's my body, choice with everything,' " she says.

Stromswold, who established herself as an independent voice in the Montana GOP early in her first term, says she was pressured by other lawmakers and politicos outside of the state Capitol to fall in line and vote with her caucus. When she didn't, she was ostracized.

"I think it makes it more difficult to make policy for the greater good and to focus on what Montanans really need," Stromswold says. "I think it becomes a lot of political statement legislation."

Party consolidation across the country

Stromswold's story is part of a growing pattern.

The number of states under one party's control is at an all-time high and the number of split legislatures, where the two chambers are held by different parties, remains near a historic low.

In Oregon last year, a group of retired moderate Democrats formed a PAC to help fund campaigns for other moderate Democrats who are becoming harder and harder to find in the state.

Moderate Republicans took a hit in the 2022 midterms in Colorado, a state where Democrats have grown their power in recent years. "There's going to be a lot of negative policy outcomes from not having a sane and relevant loyal opposition party," former Republican state Rep. Colin Larson, who lost his reelection bid last year, told Colorado Public Radio.

In Montana, the consolidation of power is having an on-the-ground effect changing political representation and whose voice counts.

At the Montana GOP convention in July, well-known moderate conservative Rep. David Bedey was booed for suggesting that Montana's elections are secure. The party also adopted a platform requesting a record to be kept of Republican lawmakers' votes and how often they deviated from the majority.

Then, last month, the Montana Republican Party voted to formally rebuke former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot. He's been out of office for more than two decades but Racicot used to be a leader in the party nationally.

Bush-Cheney '04 Campaign Chairman Marc Racicot speaks during the opening session of the 2004 RNC August 30, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Getty Images
Bush-Cheney '04 campaign Chairman Marc Racicot speaks during the opening session of the 2004 RNC on Aug. 30, 2004, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Racicot was once chair of the Republican National Committee and led former President George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Twenty years later, Montana GOP members are now pointing to Racicot's endorsements of Democrats over Republicans in recent elections in their rebuking. They say Racicot "cannot claim with any authority to speak on behalf of Montana Republicans."

Racicot says he's not surprised by his ex-communication, but he is concerned.

"Separating people into factions and pitting them against one another, and trying to appeal to the worst side of our nature, is not the way to preserve a democracy."

Not just red states. Not just Republicans

The rebuking of Racicot, and the broader trend of the GOP tightening its grip on its members, is not exclusive to Montana, or Republicans, says Montana State University Political Scientist Jessi Bennion.

"More and more, both parties are calling for ideological conformity," Bennion says. "There is not a lot of room for, for instance, a pro-life Democrat these days, when maybe 20 years ago, we saw both liberals and conservatives in each party."

Bennion says this kind of consolidation makes it so the party is easier to control.

In Montana, the state Republican Party holds more power over elected office than at any time in about the last century.

Can the moderate Montana titans survive?

As the party seeks to expand control come 2024, they have their sights set on Democrats' last stronghold in Montana — the U.S. Senate seat held by Jon Tester. Tester has been identified nationally as a vulnerable seat Republicans hope to pick up in order to flip the Senate. Racicot could try to stand in their way.

Tester, so far, is the only candidate in the race. But Racicot says he would endorse the Democrat.

"I'm not going to defer to party over principle," Racicot says. He calls it a "happy coincidence" if someone in his own party "serves all of the interests of the people of Montana well, and if they proceed in a way that's reasonable and lacks extremism," but that's not always the case.

In a Montana that's growing deeper and deeper red, it's not clear whether long-time political leaders like Tester and Racicot still have the pull they once did.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee Ragar
Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.