Montana Voices: Special election? That sounds familiar

By Evan Barrett

A congressional death in 1945 and a federal judgeship appointment in 1969 triggered two Montana special congressional elections like the one we have scheduled for May 23, now that former Rep. Ryan Zinke has been sworn in as Interior secretary.

Evan Barrett

On Jan. 15, 1945, at the beginning of his fifth term, 66-year-old Montana Congressman James F. O’Connor, of Livingston, died in Washington, D.C. O’Connor had been a Montana District Court judge, served one term in the Montana Legislature, and unsuccessfully tried three times in Democratic primaries to get to Congress. He lost in 1922 to Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, in 1932 to Rep. Roy Ayers and in 1934 to Sen. James Murray. In 1936 O’Connor was finally elected to Congress where he remained until his death.

The 1945 Montana Legislature had established a June 5 statewide bond levy election. Gov. Sam Ford then piggy-backed the special congressional election on the same date to save the $40,000 cost of a separate election.

Attorney General R.V. Bottomly asked the Montana Supreme Court to require primary nominating elections, but the court declared that the political parties should nominate by convention. Lewistown hosted both party’s conventions, the Democrats on April 14 and Republicans on the 16th.

Democrats nominated Leo Graybill Sr., of Great Falls, and Republicans nominated Wesley D’Ewart, of Park County. Park County farmer Edgar Spriggs, of the Socialist Party, and Independent Robert Yellowtail, a Crow tribal official, were also on the special election ballot.

On June 5, D’Ewart defeated Graybill by a 4,032-vote margin (with the minor candidates receiving a total of 3,619 votes). D’Ewart was re-elected four times but then, in 1954, was defeated when he challenged Sen. James Murray for his Senate seat.

On Feb. 27, 1969, new President Richard Nixon’s first federal judgeship appointment went to Montana Congressman James Battin. Battin had been elected to Congress five times, starting in 1960 when he defeated Leo Graybill, Jr.

On March 4, 1969, Gov. Forrest Anderson proclaimed a special congressional election for June 24. Again, both political parties held nominating conventions in Lewistown, Democrats on April 11-12 and Republicans on April 18-19.

Competing for the Democratic nod were John Melcher, 44, a veterinarian and former Forsyth mayor, a state senator and representative who had run unsuccessfully against Battin in 1966; Harold Gerke, 57, former Billings mayor who served eight terms in the Montana House, two as speaker; Jerry Cate, 29, Billings attorney who headed Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 Montana presidential efforts and was later a Constitutional Convention delegate; and Jack McDonald, 40, a state senator from Belt and chairman of the Constitutional Revision Commission.

At the convention, Melcher prevailed on the first ballot, getting 41 of 80 votes; Gerke got 21 votes, Cate 12 and McDonald 6.

A week later, Republican aspirants were Bill Mather, 46, a Billings attorney who served four terms in the Montana House and was 1969 House majority leader; Jack Rehberg, 39, a Billings businessman-rancher who served five terms in the Montana House and later ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1970; Dr. M.F. Keller of Great Falls, who resigned as Republican Party state chairman to try for Congress and who also served three terms in the Montana House; and Hank Cox, 46, a Billings teacher who served a total of three terms in the Montana House.

Mather won the nomination on the third ballot with 80 votes to 69 for Rehberg, 4 for Keller and none for Cox.

Darby Witmer, a wheat farmer from Dawson County, was on the ballot as the candidate of the Americanist Party, George Wallace’s 1968 presidential party.

On June 24, after a campaign of a little over two months,  Melcher was elected to Congress by a margin of 2,032 votes. Melcher was re-elected three times and then ran successfully to replace Mike Mansfield in the U.S. Senate in 1976, where he served two terms.

Now that the 2017 party conventions are completed, we have a race between Republican Greg Gianforte, fresh from his losing effort to unseat Gov. Steve Bullock, despite spending almost $6 million of his own funds, and Democrat Rob Quist, a farmer-rancher, Montana arts ambassador and Montana musician for 45 years. Neither has held elected office before. It should be an interesting race.

In the 1945 special election, with a Democratic president, a Republican replaced a Democrat in Congress and in the 1969 special election, with a Republican president, a Democrat replaced a Republican in Congress. This year with a Republican president and a Republican House seat to be filled, will that pattern hold to the advantage of Quist?

The history of voter turnout in these special elections is interesting as well.  In 1945 the turnout was 46 percent of the number of votes cast in the November 1944 general election and Republican Wesley D’Ewart won.

In 1969, the turnout was 72 percent of the number of votes cast in the November 1968 general election, when Melcher, a Democrat, won. It would appear that Republican Party Chair Jeff Essmann recognized that factor when he sought to kill a mail-in ballot bill in the Legislature because it might lead to a higher turnout and thus advantage Democratic voters and Democratic candidates, in this case Rob Quist.

What will happen in 2017? Time will tell, and quite soon.

Evan Barrett, of Butte, recently retired after 47 years working in Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is an award-winning producer of Montana history films who continues to write columns and record commentaries, while occasionally teaching Montana history.

Much of the information for this column comes from “Atlas of Montana Politics 1889-1976” by Ellis Waldron and Paul B. Wilson and from newspaper archives.

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