No surprise here. Democrats and our good positions on many pieces of legislation were pounded again this past week. On the floor, and over the votes of every Democrat, the Republican majority passed anti-immigration legislation and ended same day voter registration while the Fish Wildlife and Parks Committee passed two anti-wolf, pro-trapping bills. Fortunately, my third committee, House Natural Resources didn’t meet.
These bad results, and there are more to come, underscored the impact of last fall’s elections and the big majorities that Republicans elected to the Legislature and the sweep they engineered of statewide offices and the federal House and Senate race. How Democrats begin rebuilding winning margins both statewide and in legislative districts are questions that are on the mind of every legislator.
Thinking of how elections might be won or majorities achieved uncovers a dilemma that Democratic legislators face. We are the voice of the party now, and a every vote we take sends a statement about Democratic values and priorities. Unfortunately, on many issues, these statements resonate more with our urban legislative districts that they do in rural Montana.
Consider the gun bill passed the House and Senate and is headed for Governor Gianforte’s desk. This bill eliminates permit requirements for concealed carry of guns and allows them almost everywhere including on college campuses. As the bill moved through the legislative process, Democrats overwhelmingly voted against it in the committees and on the House and Senate floors, responding both to their own convictions and to the will voters in their legislative districts. I know I received plenty of mail and many passionate messages urging me to vote against any bills that made it easier to carry guns, concealed or otherwise.
If Democrats are now the party of gun regulation in the Montana House and Senate it needs to be recognized that the most successful Democratic political leaders have followed a different course. Most of them have been staunchly pro-gun.
To give one example, In 1992, when Montana’s two congressional seats were collapsed into one and western district congressman Pat Williams ran against eastern district representative Ron Marlene, I helped organize the Montana Hunters and Anglers Political Action Committee to aid Pat in his campaign. On the last Sunday before the election we ran a full page report card in all of Montana’s daily papers. The first grade we gave was for protecting gun rights and Ron Marlene got an A+. Pat Williams got an A+ too. And for every other grade, from protecting clean water to standing up for public lands, Pat got A’s, while Ron got nothing but F’s. Pat was clearly the better candidate on every natural resource issue, but it was equally and perhaps most important to his election to remind voters of his support for gun rights while he was in Congress.
Pat Williams has not been alone in his pro-gun stands. Throughout his string of winning elections, Max Baucus received an A rating from the National Rifle Association. Jon Tester was an A rated NRA Senator until he voted against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination which the NRA scored as an anti-gun vote and Brian Schweitzer proudly announced that he had one more gun than he needed but one less than he wanted. Most recently, Steve Bullock stepped away from his previously staunch advocacy of gun rights when he ran for President and his shift in position was a campaign issue when he ran for the Senate in 2020.
By way of thoughtful policy, Democrats may have the right position on concealed carry in the 2021 Legislature and regulating guns by way of public safety is broadly supported in most districts that elect Democratic legislators. But it’s also a position that will weigh down Democrats seeking election to the Legislature in rural and semi-rural districts across the state and fails to acknowledge that Democrats who run state need will need recognize that Montanans like their guns. As the electorate has grown more polarized and wedge uses like guns more important, the gun issue and others will continue to be a challenge for Democrats outside our most urban districts.