Tuesday, May 30, 2023
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Montana Legislature Tables Effort to Block 3rd-Party Senate Candidates

'It's actually been pretty interesting... '

(Headline USA) A proposed change to next year’s Montana U.S. Senate primary that could have hurt Democrat Sen. Jon Tester’s reelection chances is likely dead after a state legislative committee shelved the GOP-backed measure Wednesday.

Some Republican lawmakers wanted to alter Montana’s 2024 Senate primary so that only the top two candidates, no matter their party, would advance to the November election.

That would have effectively blocked out third-party candidates, who Republicans blamed for draining away potential GOP votes during past attempts to unseat Tester.

Control of the Senate will be in play during next year’s election. Tester’s seat is one of several that Democrats are defending in Republican-leaning states.

The race’s national importance helped fuel outrage over the bid to change the primary rules. Critics, including Democratic lawmakers and representatives of the Libertarian party, blasted it as a blatant attempt to rig the election.

After Rep. Gregory Frazer moved to table the bill during a Wednesday meeting of the House State Administration Committee, all but one of the committee’s 12 Republicans joined the panel’s six Democrats to vote to shelve the measure.

“I have had a lot of my folks from back home reach out to me and ask me to vote no on this — a lot more than what I thought. It’s actually been pretty interesting,” said Frazer, a Republican from Deer Lodge.

It’s considered unlikely the bill could be revived given Wednesday’s definitive House committee vote.

The state Senate approved the 2024 primary change earlier this month by a 27-23 vote. Seven Republicans joined all of the chamber’s Democrats in voting against the measure.

The bill’s Republican sponsor said he wanted to stop the GOP and Democrats alike from trying to manipulate elections by stealthily promoting third party candidates.

But emails included in the legislative file for the bill show that longtime Republican lobbyist Chuck Denowh helped shape the measure.

In late March, Denowh suggested that an early version of the proposal be changed so it would apply only to the U.S. Senate and would sunset after the 2024 election, the emails show. The bill was changed accordingly.

State Rep. Kelly Kortum, a Democrat from Bozeman, said the bill had been pushed onto Montana by outside interests. He called it “an irresponsible way to change Montana’s election laws.”

“A broad coalition of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, and others across Montana publicly spoke out against the bill,” Kortum said.

The bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Greg Hertz of Polson, did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.

Both major parties in Montana have sought to use third parties to their advantage in past elections.

During one of last year’s U.S. House elections, a Democratic-linked group in Washington, D.C., sent mailers promoting Libertarian candidate John Lamb as the race’s “true conservative” in an effort to peel away conservative votes.

In the 2020 race, the Republican Party bankrolled a $100,000 signature-gathering effort to put the Montana Green Party on the ballot and hurt Democrats’ chances. The state Supreme Court removed the Green Party after hundreds of people sought to withdraw their signatures upon learning the GOP was behind the effort.

Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press

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