Moderates are getting elbowed out of state party politics Across the country, parties are consolidating political power in states and squeezing out the moderate middle. In Montana, that squeeze is changing political representation and whose voice counts.

Can moderates survive state politics? In Montana, they may be going extinct

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Across the country, the number of states under the control of a single party is at an all-time high. As in many state capitals, efforts to consolidate power in Montana are chipping away at the moderate middle. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: At just 21 years old, Representative Mallerie Stromswold presided over the Montana House of Representatives for the day back in early January.


MALLERIE STROMSWOLD: Members of the committee, please be in order.

RAGAR: Her job was to run the show as lawmakers debated and voted on a long list of bills.


STROMSWOLD: Members of the committee, you have before you for your consideration House Bill 85. Will the clerk read the title of the bill?

RAGAR: The next day, though, the young Republican announced her resignation. She cited a variety of reasons.

STROMSWOLD: One definitely being the personal struggles that I have been facing. You know, mental health is hard at this age. And when you're struggling with that and then decide to throw on the challenges of serving and especially the way I chose to serve, which was not aligned with how those around me would have preferred me to at times, it makes it difficult.

RAGAR: Stromswold was in her second term. Despite being one of the youngest lawmakers ever elected, she'd established herself as an independent voice in the GOP. She voted against Republican efforts to limit the rights of transgender Montanans and for a Democratic bill aiming to protect the rights of minors.

STROMSWOLD: I'm big on principles more than anything. You know, if you're going to say, it's my body, my choice, it's my body, my choice, with everything.

RAGAR: Stromswold says she was pressured by other lawmakers and others outside the Capitol to fall in line and vote with her caucus. When she didn't, she was ostracized. Stromswold's story is part of a growing pattern. At the Montana GOP convention in July, well-known moderate Representative David Bedey was booed for suggesting that Montana's elections are secure.


DAVID BEDEY: And I think there's plenty of reason to be concerned. But not in the state of Montana. Anyone who's looked carefully at the...


BEDEY: My time to speak.

RAGAR: Then, last month, the Montana Republican Party voted to formally rebuke former Republican Governor Marc Racicot. He'd been out of office for more than two decades, but Racicot used to be a leader in the party nationally. Here's former President George W. Bush, describing Racicot on NPR's All Things Considered in 2001.


GEORGE W BUSH: He knows how to build grassroots organizations.

RAGAR: That was back when Bush appointed Racicot to be chair of the Republican National Committee. Racicot later went on to lead Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.


MARC RACICOT: We'll be able to work as a team very aggressively all the way across the country to make certain that we are fundamentally sound and financially healthy and reaching out in as many different directions as we possibly can.

RAGAR: Fast-forward 20 years - now Montana GOP members point to Racicot's endorsements of Democrats over Republicans in recent elections in their rebuking. They say Racicot, quote, "cannot claim with any authority to speak on behalf of Montana Republicans." Racicot says he's not surprised by his excommunication, but he is concerned.

RACICOT: Separating people into factions and pitting them against one and another and trying to appeal to the worst side of our nature is not the way to preserve a democracy.

RAGAR: Montana State University political scientist Jessi Bennion says the rebuking of Racicot and the broader trend of the GOP tightening its grip on its members is not exclusive to Montana or Republicans.

JESSI BENNION: More and more, both parties are calling for ideological conformity. There is not a lot of room, for instance, a pro-life Democrat these days, when maybe 20 years ago we saw both kind of liberal and conservatives in each party.

RAGAR: Bennion says this kind of consolidation makes it so...

BENNION: The party is much easier to control.

RAGAR: In Montana, the state Republican Party holds more power over elected office than any time in about a century. As the Montana GOP seeks to expand that control come 2024, they have their sights set on Democrats' last stronghold in Montana, the U.S. Senate seat held by Jon Tester. Racicot could try to stand in their way. Tester so far is the only candidate in the race, but Roscoe says he would endorse the Democrat.

RACICOT: He's reasoned. He's moderate. He's capable.

RAGAR: In a Montana that's growing deeper and deeper red, it's not clear whether longtime political leaders like Tester and Racicot can still have the pull they once did.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont.

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