Montana shelves GOP proposal to alter US Senate primary

FILE - Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks at a news conference alongside Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., back left, on Aug. 2, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Libertarians lined up with Democrats on Friday against a proposal that would effectively block out third party candidates from next year's Montana U.S. Senate election. Republicans are trying to consolidate opposition to incumbent Jon Tester in a race that's pivotal for control of the the Senate. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Patrick Semansky, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BILLINGS, Mont. – A proposed change to next year's Montana U.S. Senate primary that was aimed at undermining Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's reelection chances is likely dead after a state legislative committee shelved the GOP-backed measure Wednesday.

Some Republican lawmakers urged on by a GOP lobbyist 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 is possible for the bill to be revived before the end of the session, but that's considered unlikely given Wednesday's definitive House committee vote.

Montana Libertarian Party chairman Sid Daoud praised Frazer for looking critically at the bill despite a push by Republican leaders to advance it and said Libertarians would remain on watch for attempts to revive the measure.

“It’s great the people stood up against it,” said Daoud, a Kalispell City Council member.

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.

Sponsor Sen. Greg Hertz of Polson did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.

The House committee on Monday rejected a second election-related bill from Hertz that would have increased the number of signatures required for independent candidates and third parties to qualify for ballots.

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.