Republicans seem tougher in Northern Rockies


As the Barack Obama wave swept much of the West, carrying fellow Democratic candidates to many victories, the Republicans in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming proved to be more resistant.

John McCain won the presidential races in all three states. In the Congressional races, the Democrats apparently took one House seat that had been held by Idaho Republicans. But Democrats failed to wrest a Wyoming House seat from Republican control, even though it had been considered up for grabs.

And Republicans gained ground or maintained their control in all three legislatures.

Here's the breakdown:


It seems Idaho Democrat Walt Minnick has just barely knocked Republican Bill Sali out of his seat in the U.S. House. As I write this, around noon Wednesday, Minnick has a tad more than 50 percent of the 350,000 votes cast (a difference of about 3,700 votes, that's all). If the totals hold, Minnick's victory can be considered a defeat of extremism. Sali, an in-your-face Christian-values politician, has held the House seat for only one term, and he hasn't accomplished much, while committing gaffes, insulting Muslims and Hindus and obese people. Minnick -- a former timber company executive and former Republican, who'd received endorsements from business groups -- is an avowed centrist. The Idaho Statesman calls it "Idaho’s biggest political upset in more than a decade … adding an unexpected member to the House Democratic majority."

In other Idaho races, as predicted, Jim Risch -- a somewhat moderate Republican with long experience in other Idaho offices -- won the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican Larry Craig. Mike Simpson, another somewhat moderate Republican, won re-election to his U.S. House seat.

In the Idaho legislature, Republicans maintained their long-time dominance. They've controlled both chambers since 1960. As I write this, it looks like they've held what they had in the last session: 52 of the 70 seats in the state House and 28 of the 35 seats in the state Senate. Locks don't get much tighter than that.

If Minnick's win holds, it's a Democratic wedge into Idaho's staunch Republicanism. It may encourage the moderate Republicans to make more deals. (Randy Stapilus, a former Idaho Statesman political reporter, has more analysis of the Idaho results.) But Idaho mostly continues to be a Republican planet.


Republicans gained ground in the Montana legislature. Votes are still being counted in a few legislative races, as I write, but this is what's known: Republicans have gained at least three seats in the state Senate, where Democrats had a one-seat advantage, so the Republicans now control that chamber. In the state House, where Republicans and a Constitution Party ally had a narrow advantage, five races are not final, but already the Republicans have won 49 of the 100 seats, so the Dems have to win all the rest of the counts or else the House will be a tie or a Republican chamber. The Great Falls Tribune has the headline, "GOP eyes control of state legislature."

Montana Democrats did better in statewide races. Gov. Brian Schweitzer won re-election easily, as did Sen. Max Baucus; they're the kind of Western Democrats who have ranching and gun-loving credentials, including high ratings from the National Rifle Association. (For instance, here's a Schweitzer TV ad in which he uses a shotgun to blast clay pigeons.) Baucus, going into his sixth term, will be the longest-serving Montana senator ever. Democrats also won the Montana attorney general race, secretary of state (defeating an incumbent Republican), state auditor, and state superintendent of schools.

Montana's new school superintendent, Denise Juneau, fended off racist slurs in the race; she's a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, and she'll reportedly be the first American Indian to hold a statewide office.

Among the other good news for Montana Democrats, by winning so many statewide offices, they now have total control over state land, since those offices come with all five seats on the state land board (an incremental advance -- they already had a majority on the land board). Also, Democrat Mike McGrath, who is term-limited out of the attorney general's office, won his race to be the next chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Montana Republicans easily held Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House; gun-loving rancher Denny Rehberg won his fifth term.

And in the races for three seats on the Montana Public Service Commission, which helps set energy policy and oversees energy companies, Republican candidates apparently took two of those seats (Brad Molnar and Alan Olson, though Olson has only a few hundred votes' lead and that count is not yet final). Those wins are defeats for the Montana Conservation Voters group, which endorsed Democrats in all three races. So, with two Democratic incumbents on the energy commission not up for re-election, the commission remains 3-to-2 in the Democrats' favor.

Montanans passed two ballot measures, expanding government health care for needy kids, and renewing a small tax to help fund the university system.


Republican thunder could be heard in Wyoming.

The GOP resoundingly held Wyoming's lone seat in the U.S. House, which is being vacated by incumbent Republican Barbara Cubin. Republican Cynthia Lummis won 52 percent of the votes, while her Democratic opponent, Gary Trauner, got only 43 percent.

A libertarian candidate, W. David Herbert, got 5 percent of the votes in the House race. Most of the libertarian votes would've gone to the Republican, if no libertarian had been running, so Trauner's defeat is even more ominous for Wyoming Democrats. Trauner, who has an MBA degree and made his nut as an Internet entrepreneur, came within a fraction of a percentage point of beating Cubin in the 2006 election. Trauner's slippage indicates that Wyoming Democrats have lost a lot of traction.

In the Wyoming legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Democrats managed to gain two seats in the state House, so now they're a little less outnumbered (Democrats have 19 seats to the Republicans' 41), while the imbalance in the state Senate remained the same (Democrats have seven seats, Republicans have 23).

Both of Wyoming's Republican U.S. senators -- two-termer Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, who was appointed in 2007 to take the place of the deceased Sen. Craig Thomas -- won re-election easily.

That's how it tends to go in Wyoming, a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1.

High Country News Classifieds