CASCADE, Mont. – The census gave Montana a second seat in Congress. On paper, that leaves the state redistribution commission with the simplest task of any of its counterparts across the country: dividing the expansive state in half.
Nothing is ever easier in redistribution battles, as political parties scramble for control of the cards that will give their candidates an advantage and the simple act of drawing a line becomes a fierce battle over who the party is. State.
In Montana, Republicans are pushing to separate the two booming college towns of Bozeman and Missoula in the western half of the state. Placing the two Democratic-leaning communities in different districts would make it difficult for Democrats to win either seat. Democrats want to consolidate their strongholds in a district that would give them a chance to win a House seat. They argue that the cities – filled with craft beer drinkers, liberal academics, remote workers and California transplants – have more in common with each other than the vast expanse of rural ranches and farms between them.
The bipartisan commission is due to select the district boundaries on Thursday. With little common ground between the two Republican members and the two Democratic members of the commission, much of the decision could lie with non-partisan chairperson Maylinn Smith, who was appointed to the commission by the Supreme Court of the state.
She is used to making small donations to the state’s Democratic political candidates, but said her experience as a judge in several tribal justice systems has enabled her to act impartially.
For Republicans, there is a simple solution – a sharp line dividing the state into eastern and western districts that places Bozeman in the east and Missoula in the west. They contrast this with the more tortured route Democrats are proposing to merge the two cities.
“When you have a shape that isn’t even a shape, it looks like the C in the Cookie Monster, it’s not a reasonable neighborhood,” said Jennifer Carlson, a Republican lawmaker from a town 20 minutes away. Bozeman.
But Democrats say it’s not that simple. Terry Cunningham, deputy mayor of Bozeman, notes that his town, along with Missoula and the state capital, Helena, are the only three in the state to have voted for carbon reduction targets when a large part the rest of the state depends on the fossil fuel industry.
“I think it’s immoral to add new fossil fuel combustion resources to the mix,” Cunningham said. “Other communities in Montana would vehemently oppose (our goals) because fossil fuel extraction is part of their lifeblood. So that makes us politically incompatible with what could be described as the number one problem facing the entire planet. “
Part of the reason Montana gets a second congressional district is population growth fueled by Bozeman, a city of 50,000 that has become a hotbed for startups and remote workers during a pandemic. Home to Montana State University, Bozeman has grown 33% over the past decade, a growth that dwarfs that seen elsewhere in the state.
Its downtown area is full of pedestrians wearing the latest moisture-wicking microfibers, upscale bakeries and restaurants. Housing prices have skyrocketed, as has homelessness. Missoula, home to the University of Montana, has similar headaches.
Democrats in both cities contend that their shared circumstances force them to be in the same district, which would likely lean only slightly towards the Republican and therefore competitive in a state where the beet-red hue of its rural areas has it strongly. tilted towards the GOP.
“For democracy to work well in the United States, you have to have a political system that meets the wishes of the electorate,” said Jeremy Johnson, political scientist at Carroll College in Helena. In safe neighborhoods, “lawmakers have less incentive to listen to voters.”
Republicans argue that the way they carve out the state would always preserve competition. Still, both seats would tip for the GOP, in part because of changes since Montana last had two seats in Congress.
In the 1990 census, Montana’s population growth slowed so much that it lost its second seat and began electing a single representative for the entire state. That seat has been held by Republicans for the past 24 years, as rural areas that once voted Democrats have become more conservative, leaving the blue islands of Bozeman and Missoula surrounded by vast red expanses.
“You don’t need to stray from city limits when you’re really in ruby-red Republican territory throughout most of the state,” Johnson said.
But not all cities fit neatly into the clipping arguments presented by Republicans and Democrats. The town of Cascade 115 miles north of Bozeman alternately falls into the eastern and western districts proposed by Democrats and Republicans. Home to about 700 people, Cascade is sandwiched between an interstate highway on one side and the Missouri River on the other and surrounded by farms and ranches.
Unlike Bozeman, its sparse main street has only a handful of businesses, including a few restaurants, a market, a gas station, a fly fishing shop, and a bank. Incorporated 110 years ago, Cascade has changed little since then, other than a recent upgrade to the city’s water and sewer lines.
The contrast with Bozeman is obvious to the townspeople.
“There are two Montanas – socially, economically, culturally – we are two states,” said Ken Speidel, who owns a horse boarding business with his wife, Kelly, in the rural town and works as a river guide in the summer and a hockey referee in winter.
Like many at Cascade, Speidel favors Republican proposals. But he recognizes the power of counter-arguments.
“There is no one solution that is going to make everyone happy,” he said.
Iris Samuels is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.