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Butte: The bluest of the blue

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Uptown Butte

Main Street cuts through Uptown Butte in this file photo looking north from below the Chamber of Commerce.

When a candidate knocks on a door in Butte, the first question some voters ask is if the politician is a Democrat.

State Sen. Jim Keane recalled being asked that question in a past campaign and said he confirmed to the man at the door that, yes, he was a Democrat. The veteran Butte legislator asked the man what he would he would have done if Keane had said he was a Republican.

“I’d slam the door in your face,” the man told Keane.

Replied Keane: “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“Just say you’re a Republican and you’ll find out,” the man told Keane.

Keane said Butter remains “a labor town,” as it has through much of its history.

“People in ‘Butte want people to go to work,” he said.

Butte’s roots as a Democratic city can be traced to its labor history and the thousands of copper miners who worked there. Although the copper mining industry has faded considerably from its peak, Silver Bow County residents remain firmly in the Democratic camp.

Silver Bow County continues to slam the doors on most Republicans’ hopes in elections, just as it has done through much of the state’s history.

In 1996, Haley Beaudry became the first Republican from Butte elected to the Legislature in 46 years. In 2010, Max Yates was the next Butte Republican elected to the Legislature. Both men were defeated for re-election.

Lee Bruner, a Butte attorney who ran for Republican for attorney general in 2008, is secretary of the Silver Bow County Republican Central Committee. He said local Republicans are drawing bigger crowds these days at its dinners and fundraisers.

“We’d like to see it grow a lot quicker, but we do see something growing, but it’s still an uphill battle,” Bruner said. “It’s still Butte: Irish, Catholic, Democrat.”

However strong Silver Bow’s clout has been in the Democratic column over the decades, Missoula County has grown into the state’s biggest Democratic prize.

In 2012, for example, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won 69 percent of the vote in Silver Bow County with 11,673 votes.

But in Missoula County, Tester took 63.5 percent of the vote, but it amounted to 36,488 votes.

Missoula has become far more heavily Democratic over the years after being more of a swing county politically.

Democratic state Sen. Dave Wanzenried, said although Missoula is heavily Democratic, the individual candidate may as important as party affiliation. He is completing his career in the Legislature from Missoula and recently moved to Billings.

Wanzenried said the outlying areas of the Missoula County probably still lean conservative, while city residents are generally liberal, led by the students and the people who live near the University of Montana campus.

Over the past 15 years, Wanzenried said a number of new people have moved into Missoula, with many of them not necessarily liberal.

“They moved here to get away from something,” he said. ‘They believe in a role for government, as long as it’s targeted at what they’re concerned about.”

Montana Republican Chairman Will Deschamps is from Missoula and lost several races for the state House in the 1990s,

“I hate to say this, but I think Missoula has reached the tipping point where we will never know it to be even equal to what it was back in the 1960s and 1970s,” Deschamps said. “It will never, ever be any better than 60-40 (percent) Democratic, and in my opinion, it may get worse.”

Deschamps said several factors have made elections more liberal in Missoula over the years.

One is the fact that Missoula is home to a university, he said.

The other, he said, is that Missoula is home to 2,600 nonprofits -- more social agencies than any other city in the state --and they are a liberal influence, he said.


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