Can moderates survive in public politics? In Montana they might disappear

ELENA, mont. – At just 21 years old, Mallery Stromsvold burned out in public service during her second semester in the Montana legislature.

She says it came down to a few things – the high cost of housing and the combination of study and work. But most of all, she felt the decline of her spiritual well-being.

“When you struggle with it and then decide to challenge the service,” says the young Republican, “it becomes a lot, especially the way I chose to serve.”

Stromsvold voted against the efforts of her fellow Republicans to restrict the rights of transgender Montana residents and in favor of a Democrat bill aimed at protecting the rights of minors. Her style of service, she says, “didn’t fit in with how others would prefer me at times.”

It all became too much, and Stromsvold announced her resignation earlier this year. “I am principled more than anything. If you’re going to say, “This is my body, my choice, this is my body, my choice, this is my body, the choice is everything,” she says.

Stromsvold, who established herself as an independent voice in the Montana Republican Party early in her first term, says she was pressured by other lawmakers and politicians outside the Capitol to support her and vote for her caucus. When she didn’t, she was ostracized.

“I think it makes it harder to develop policies for the common good and focus on what the people of Montana really need,” Stromswold says. “I think it’s becoming more political statements of the legislation.”

Party consolidation by country

Stromswold’s history is part of a growing picture.

The number of states controlled by a single party is at an all-time high, and the number of split legislatures with two houses held by different parties remains near an all-time low.

Last year in Oregon, a group of retired moderate Democrats formed the PAC to help fund the campaigns of other moderate Democrats who are increasingly hard to find in the state.

Moderate Republicans have been defeated in the 2022 midterm elections in Colorado, a state where Democrats have built up power in recent years. “The absence of a sensible and appropriately loyal opposition party will have many negative political consequences,” Colin Larson, a former Republican Rep. who lost his re-election bid last year, said in an interview with Colorado Public Radio.

In Montana, the consolidation of power has an impact on the ground, changing political representation and whose voice matters.

At the Montana GOP convention in July, prominent moderate conservative Rep. David Bedi was booed for suggesting elections in Montana were safe. The party also adopted a platform asking them to keep records of Republican lawmakers’ votes and how often they deviated from the majority.

Then, last month, the Montana Republican Party voted to formally reprimand former Republican governor Mark Rasiko. He had been out of office for over two decades, but Rasiko was the leader of the party at the national level.

Rasiko was once chairman of the Republican National Committee and ran the 2004 campaign for former President George W. Bush.

Twenty years later, members of the Montana Republican Party in their rebuke now point to Rasico’s support for Democrats, not Republicans, in recent elections. They say Rasiko “cannot claim any authority to speak for Montana Republicans.”

Rasiko says that he is not surprised by his former interaction, but is concerned.

“Dividing people into factions and playing them against each other and trying to appeal to the worst sides of our nature is not the way to save democracy.”

Not just red states. Not only Republicans

Rasiko’s denunciation and the broader trend of increasing GOP control over its members is not unique to Montana or Republicans, says Montana State University political scientist Jesse Bennion.

“More and more, both parties are calling for an ideological consensus,” says Bennion. “There’s not much room these days, for example, for a pro-life Democrat, when maybe 20 years ago we saw both liberals and conservatives in every party,”

Bennion says this consolidation makes it easier to control the party.

In Montana, the state Republican Party has more power over elected office than at any time in about the past century.

Can the moderate titans of Montana survive?

As the party seeks to expand control by 2024, they have set their sights on the last Democratic stronghold in Montana, the U.S. Senate seat held by John Tester. Tester has been identified nationally as a vulnerabilities that Republicans are hoping to get in order to turn the Senate over. Rasiko might try to get in their way.

Tester, so far, the only candidate in the race. But Rasiko says he would support a Democrat.

“I’m not going to give in to the party on principle,” says Rasiko. He calls it a “happy coincidence” if someone from his own party “serves well all the interests of the people of Montana, and if they act sensibly and free from extremism”, but this is not always the case.

In an increasingly reddened Montana, it’s unclear if longtime political leaders like Tester and Rasico are retaining the influence they once held.

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