Tester: Welcome to the Jungle

In the late 1980’s, the rock band Guns ‘N Roses released the song, “Welcome to the Jungle,” and if a bill that just passed the Montana state Senate becomes law, Sen. Jon Tester (D) may be facing a much different electoral system in this election cycle.

Last week, the Montana Senate on a 27-23 vote, approved Sen. Greg Hertz’s (R-Polson) bill that would put in place for the 2024 election an all-party jungle primary instead of the state’s traditional partisan nomination system. Montana has an open primary process, meaning that voters do not register by political party and therefore can choose a party ballot at the time of the election.

Sen. Hertz says his bill would use the 2024 Senate race as a way to test the jungle primary system, where all candidates, regardless of political party affiliation, are placed on the same ballot and the top two finishers advance into the general election. He argues the jungle primary system is already successfully utilized in neighboring Washington, and in two other western states, Alaska and California. The concept originated decades earlier in Louisiana, back in 1975.

Sen. Hertz was quoted as saying, “we want to make sure that the winning US Senator has more than 50% support from the people of Montana.” He used past election statistics to show that several Montana Senate races had ended with plurality victories, and argued an office of such importance with a long six-year term should have a Senator who has achieved majority support.

The Hertz bill will soon be considered in the state House of Representatives, a body with a 68-32 Republican majority. Should the measure pass, it will move to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk for his signature. The legislation will create a test-case 2024 jungle primary only for the Senate race, and will expire after one election unless the legislature takes further action in 2025.

There is also legislation to ban Ranked Choice Voting in Montana. The argument is being made that the jungle primary is the preferred option since the eventual general election winner is guaranteed to have an actual hard vote majority. In Ranked Choice Voting, an eventual winner has a paper 50% after multiple rounds, since the only actual votes are cast on the initial ballot. This has often led to a candidate winning the election with securing only a minority vote, instead of one who records an actual majority.

Democrats are arguing that the primary change move is purely partisan and only designed to defeat Sen. Tester. They portend that the Republicans are promoting the jungle primary system in order to eliminate a Libertarian candidate’s presence in this general election because the minor party ballot line continues to take more votes from a Republican candidate, which, as the GOP leadership continues to say, has cost them election victories.

In the 2018 election, Sen. Tester recorded 50.3% of the vote with a Libertarian receiving 2.9%. Six years earlier, with President Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, Sen. Tester was re-elected with 48.6%, while the Libertarian nominee received 6.6 percent. In his original 2006 election, when he unseated then-Senator Conrad Burns (R), Mr. Tester notched 49.2% with 2.6% going to the Libertarian candidate.

In the 2012 election, the only time Sen. Tester appeared on the ballot in a presidential year, he ran just under 35,000 votes ahead of President Obama. In Montana, Mr. Obama was only able to muster 41.7% against then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Sen. Tester will have to perform similarly against the political grain if he is to win re-election in 2024. Since the state has trended more Republican since 2012, the chances are good that the eventual GOP presidential nominee will again carry the state by a large margin.

It remains to be seen if the Republicans enact the Hertz bill to create a test-cast jungle primary only for the Senate campaign. In a Montana election that will likely again be very close, small changes can often alter the ultimate outcome.

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