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Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, left, tours Plum Creek’s medium-density fiberboard mill in Columbia Falls on Thursday.

KALISPELL – While Flathead County is among the state’s most populous counties, Whitefish business owner Dave Fern says it’s a mistake to call it an urban county – and that’s one reason why it’s so reliably Republican.

Fern says the same can be said about another western Montana county: Ravalli, where the population is growing but remains largely semirural or suburban – and where Democrats rarely win at the ballot box.

“I link these two counties together, rather than linking (them) up with the larger communities on the interstate highways,” says Fern, who chairs the Democratic Central Committee in Flathead County. “The Democratic Party has become more of an urban party.”

Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that Flathead and Ravalli counties are the reddest of Montana’s larger counties.

Since 1992, only two Democrats running statewide have won either county – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, in 2002 and 2008, when he had very weak Republican opponents, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in his 2008 statewide wipeout of Republican Roy Brown.

Republicans running statewide usually roll up huge margins in these counties, control most, if not all of the counties’ legislative seats, and dominate local offices as well.

Flathead has become Montana’s fourth-most-populous county, and Ravalli has now overtaken Butte-Silver Bow as the seventh-largest county by population.

Nearly 67,000 people went to the polls in these two counties in 2012, almost 14 percent of the statewide total.

Yet Ravalli County has plenty of rural residents, “who live outside the city because they want to be left alone and want more freedoms,” says Terry Nelson of Hamilton, chair of the local Republican Central Committee.

Flathead County also has its share of rural residents, sprinkled throughout the woods and fields of the valley and surrounding mountains – but other factors are at play that have given Republicans a clear edge, local observers says.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt,

R-Kalispell, says the closing of sawmills in the Flathead in the past two decades and the shutdown of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant wiped out hundreds of union jobs, severely undercutting the strength of the Democratic Party.

“When they took those timber jobs away, those union jobs, for all of those people, in favor of grizzly bears and wolves, and they went to jobs flipping burgers, we went red,” he says.

The same dynamic, to a lesser extent, occurred in Ravalli County, says Rep. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, with blue-collar timber jobs evaporating as it became harder to harvest trees from the national forests.

As those voters have moved on, they’ve been replaced by older voters, many of them retired, who have moved to Montana to escape urban enclaves on the West Coast, he says – and they’re more likely to have conservative political views.

“They don’t want their neighbor to mess with them and they don’t want to mess with their neighbor,” Connell says. “They don’t want government to say whether they have to do this, or do that.”

“I do not think they’re necessarily liberals leaving Manhattan,” Fern says of the arriving retirees. “We’re probably attracting a more conservative voter.”

James Conner of Kalispell, who writes an independent blog on Flathead Valley politics, says evangelical churches also are widespread in the area, adding to the conservative bent.

“You have a number of smaller factors that all add up,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to change. It might get redder, but I don’t think it’s going to get bluer.”

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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