Another Special Looms

By Jim Ellis

Dec. 16, 2015 — Already, calling potentially five special elections may be necessary even before the new 115th Congress convenes. Now, a sixth is on the political horizon now that Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT-AL) has been nominated as US Interior Secretary.

As we have detailed in previous Updates, Sen. Jeff Sessions’ Alabama seat could go to a special election after an interim appointment is made, and the North Dakota Senate seat will definitely go before the voters if president-elect Donald Trump chooses Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) as Agriculture Secretary.

In the House, three seats will be vacated either before or just after the new Congress begins. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA-34) has already resigned his seat to accept Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) appointment as attorney general, replacing Sen.-Elect Kamala Harris (D). The KS-4 and GA-6 districts will be opened when Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Wichita) and Tom Price (R-Roswell) are confirmed as CIA Director and Secretary of Health & Human Services, respectively.

So far, all of the seats, including the North Dakota Democratic Senate seat, should easily go Republican in special elections. The Montana at-large seat, however, may well become competitive.

While Montana is becoming a bedrock Republican state in presidential elections – Trump scored a 56-36 percent victory here last November, for example – such is not uniformly the case for other statewide elections. The state sends both a Republican (Steve Daines) and a Democrat (Jon Tester) to the US Senate – Tester will be seeking his third term in 2018 – and the governor of Montana is a Democrat (Steve Bullock) who was just re-elected last month.

Though Republicans won the secretary of state, state auditor, and state superintendent of public instruction statewide positions this year, all replaced Democrats who were ineligible to seek a third term in office. The state’s attorney general is Republican Tim Fox, who was easily re-elected to a second term. Montana’s lieutenant governor is Democrat Mike Cooney, but he did not face the voters in a stand-alone race, since the he and the governor run as a party ticket.

As is the case for all seven at-large states, every member of the Big Sky legislature (50 senators; 100 representatives) each fall into the lone congressional district. Therefore, the potential candidate pool is much larger than in states with multiple congressional districts.

There will likely be a bit of controversy surrounding the special election process. Montana law mandates a special election to be called between 85 and 100 days after a vacancy becomes official. In the interim, state law allows the governor to choose a short-term replacement. Since a Republican holds the seat, the GOP state committee would present the governor with three potential appointment candidates, of which he must choose one. The US constitution, however, mandates that all US representatives be elected. Therefore, we can expect some legal wrangling as to whether the state can send a representative to hold the office while an election is pending. The interim appointment would be eligible to run in the special election.

Speculation is beginning as to who might become a congressional candidate. Since Montana has gubernatorial term limits, it would appear that Attorney General Fox would be best positioned to run for governor in 2020, when incumbent Bullock cannot seek re-election. Therefore, it is doubtful that he would seek the congressional seat.

The three other Republican statewide officials all just won their positions in November, so it is unlikely that we will see any of them jumping to a new office so quickly. For the Democrats, outgoing State superintendent of public instruction, Denise Juneau, who lost to Rep. Zinke, 56-41 percent but spent close to $3 million, would certainly be someone to whom the party would give serious consideration.

Should Zinke be confirmed in January, we can expect the Montana special election process to conclude sometime in April. It is a virtual certainty that this open special election will be the most interesting of the early national election cycle.

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