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2024 gets underway, with busy Montana election season ahead

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 01, 2024

HELENA — 2024 is here, and the political calendars have lined up to make it one of the busiest election years Montana has seen – with voters set to weigh in on races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and much more.

“It’s a packed dance card for sure,” said Rob Saldin, director of the Mansfield Center's Ethics and Public Affairs program, and professor of political science at the University of Montana.

With the new year underway, MTN is highlighting some of the key contests that will appear on Montana ballots:

U.S. Capitol MTN

U.S. Senate

Saldin says it’s clear which election is going to get the most attention, both within the state and nationwide: the race for the Senate seat Jon Tester has held since 2007. Tester, a Democrat from Big Sandy, is seeking his fourth six-year term, and he’s already raised millions of dollars for what’s likely to be a hard-fought campaign.

Tester, Montana’s only statewide elected Democrat, has successfully outrun Democratic presidential candidates in the past, and he may need to do that again in a state Donald Trump won heavily in 2020.

“What Democrats in this state need to do is carve out their own personal brand that differentiates them from just the generic national Washington, D.C. Democrat brand,” said Saldin. “Now, that's a lot easier if you're someone like Jon Tester, who has been around for a long time, has deep connections in this state, is widely known and has that established brand already.”

Saldin said Tester and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown are the two incumbents who Republicans see as their top targets in their campaign to retake the Senate majority – an effort Montana’s other senator, Steve Daines, is leading.

While Tester’s already preparing for a general election, there may still be a hotly contested primary to determine which Republican will face him. Gallatin County businessman and Navy veteran Tim Sheehy – a first-time candidate – entered the race in June. He quickly secured endorsements from Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, and support from Daines and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He’s been running extensive TV ad campaigns since then, highlighting his military service and his conservative credentials.

Saldin said the heavy advertising seems to have worked so far to raise Sheehy’s profile.

“You can run all the ads in the world about Donald Trump and Joe Biden; you probably aren't going to change too many people's feelings about those guys, right?” he said. “These are well known figures at this point; Tester would be in the same camp. But for a total unknown like Tim Sheehy, advertising – first and foremost, it gets his name out there, just so people recognize a name, it's not a total zero when you see it. And then you set up a few connections, and you see these are the themes that he's harping on in these ads.”

But U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale continues to loom over the race for the Republican nomination. While he hasn’t formally said he’ll forgo reelection to run for Senate, he’s said in a social media video that he’s “heavily considering” jumping into the race. He’s also sharply criticized Republican leadership, accusing them of trying to “select our next senator.”

Rosendale is a two-term congressman and former state auditor, and he ran against Tester in the 2018 Senate race. Saldin said, with his previous statewide campaigns and name recognition, Rosendale is in a different position from Sheehy.

“For Rosendale, it's not altogether shocking that he hasn't announced his intentions yet,” he said. “I think in a way it might work to his advantage to have a little bit of a shorter primary season.”

Former Montana Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson has also announced a run for the GOP nomination.

Saldin said conventional wisdom has been that a heated primary would harm a party’s eventual nominee in the general election, and that Republican leaders might therefore prefer Rosendale to stay out of the Senate race. But he said, in this case, a primary might not be all bad – even for Sheehy.

“I actually think a lot of the time it's not necessarily a bad thing to get battle-tested a little bit in the primary,” Saldin said. “And remember this guy has never run for office before. How confident is he? How up to speed is he on all the public policy issues he's going to have to talk about?”

There will also be a Libertarian candidate in the Senate race, as Kalispell city councilman Sid Daoud announced he’s running in November.

One thing already clear is that Montana is likely to see unprecedented levels of spending in the Senate race. Both the 2018 and 2020 Senate elections broke records as the state’s most expensive campaigns, with more than $160 million spent by the candidates and outside groups in 2020. Saldin said, with the intense national attention on Montana this year, that trend is likely to continue.

“It's going to be unlike anything we've seen,” he said. “What that translates into, money coming in – that means advertisements. So, yeah, get ready, we've only begun.”

Western Congressional District

U.S. House

2024 will be the second election since Montana got back its second seat in the U.S. House. The races in the state’s two congressional districts are shaping up very differently.

And the two races are shaping up very differently.

In the western congressional district, indications so far are that we could see a rematch of the 2022 election. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Whitefish, is seeking to be elected to the House for the fourth time. He previously represented the entire state in the House before becoming U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Donald Trump.

Democrat Monica Tranel, an attorney from Missoula, is also running again in 2024, after losing to Zinke in 2022 by about three percentage points. The two sharply criticized each other throughout an often-heated 2022 campaign, sparring over issues like abortion, energy and their career records.

Eastern Congressional District

In the eastern congressional district, much is going to depend on Rosendale, who currently holds the seat. Even though he hasn’t announced he’s leaving the seat open, a full complement of Republican candidates has already said they’re running or they plan to run if Rosendale doesn’t, including:

· State Auditor Troy Downing
· Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen
· Former state Rep. Joel Krautter
· Former state Sen. Ric Holden
· Former state Sen. Ed Walker
· Retired DEA supervisor Stacy Zinn
· Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci

“Everyone's kind of waiting on Rosendale,” said Saldin. “However, one reason why I think it seems really likely that Rosendale is going to go for the Senate is because clearly all these Republicans have launched their own campaigns, and they would not be doing that if they thought Rosendale was going to stick around in that eastern district.”

Two Democratic candidates have also filed for the eastern district seat: Kevin Hamm, a Helena business owner and president of Montana Pride, and Ming Cabrera, a former pharmaceutical sales representative from Billings.

Rosendale won by a wide margin in the district in 2022.

Montana Governor's

Governor:

While Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte hasn’t formally announced he’s running for a second term in 2024, Saldin said it would be very surprising if he didn’t seek reelection – and he’s likely to start in a strong position if he does run.

“I always start with this kind of fundamental point, and that is that governors almost always get reelected,” he said. “So if you win that first term – take all other considerations off the table, you’ve got a really good shot at winning a second term if you want it.”

Saldin said the increasing nationalization of politics and Montana’s general swing toward Republicans will also be advantages for Gianforte in a reelection race.

Tanner Smith, a state representative from Lakeside, is the only Republican who’s filed campaign finance paperwork for the governor’s race so far.

On the Democratic side, Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive and now author and activist, is already campaigning. He’s criticized Gianforte on issues like abortion, public lands, education and, most notably, recent increases in property taxes – an issue that Saldin said he expects will come up again as the campaign goes on.

“A lot of Montanans got hit hard on that, and that I think is damaging – just, Gianforte is the guy in charge, Republicans run the show in Helena, and this is happening on their watch,” he said.

Saldin said he expects Busse to campaign aggressively and to play up his working-class and Montana credentials.

Montana State Capitol
2021 Legislature reaches half-way point; GOP mostly having its way.

State Land Board:

Four other top statewide positions, known as the Land Board offices because of their role in managing state trust lands, are also up for election this year. Two incumbents have announced they’re running for reelection, while the other two positions may be open.

· Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, is seeking his second term in office. He’s being challenged by Democrat Ben Alke, an attorney from Bozeman.
· Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, a Republican from Helena, is also running for another term. Democratic challenger Jesse James Mullen is a newspaper publisher from Deer Lodge.
· The state auditor’s office appears to be open, as incumbent Troy Downing has launched a U.S. House campaign. No candidates have filed campaign finance paperwork for the position yet.
· The superintendent of public instruction position will be open, as incumbent Elsie Arntzen was elected twice and is now termed-out. Two Republicans have expressed interest in the job: Sharyl Allen, who was Arntzen’s deputy superintendent, and Susie Hedalen, superintendent of the Townsend School District. Democratic state Sen. Shannon O’Brien of Missoula, a former teacher and school administrator, has also launched a campaign. Kevin Leatherbarrow, who operates a private tutoring center in Great Falls, is running as a Libertarian.

Montana Supreme Court

Montana Supreme Court:

Another set of key races will be for two open seats on the Montana Supreme Court, including the chief justice position. Incumbent Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Associate Justice Dirk Sandefur have both decided not to seek another eight-year term on the court.

Two candidates are actively pursuing the chief justice position so far: Jerry Lynch, a former federal magistrate judge from Missoula, and Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson. In addition, two state district judges have filed campaign finance paperwork for the associate justice position: Katherine Bidegaray of Sidney and Dan Wilson of Flathead County. It’s possible others may enter these races as well.

Unlike the races mentioned so far, Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan. The top two finishers in the primary will move on to the general election, and no party labels will appear on the ballot.

But Saldin said, in some recent Supreme Court races – including in 2022 – a partisan dynamic did emerge, and it’s an open question how much that could influence this year’s elections. In 2022, Republican leaders strongly supported Public Service Commission President James Brown for the court, but he was defeated by incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson.

“This is a nonpartisan election, and so you don't have that cue right there on the ballot next to the name – Republican, Democrat,” said Saldin. “You actually have to have picked that up and retained that information to be able to know that.”

Polling Place

Turnout:

In general, Republicans have performed increasingly strongly in recent Montana elections. Saldin said that’s come along with a greater nationalization of politics and a decline in the number of voters who split their tickets between candidates of different parties. He said another factor has been Donald Trump, who appears likely to be on the ballot once again in 2024.

“Democrats have to be worried, I think, that Trump is going to bring out a lot of people who otherwise might not show up,” he said. “And some of those might call it a day after ticking the Trump box, but a lot of them – and we know this from 2020 – a lot of them are going to continue on down that ballot and tick the box for the other Republicans.”

Saldin said it was once considered an “iron law” of politics that higher turnout would benefit Democrats, but that isn’t necessarily the case in Montana anymore. He said Democrats will be hoping for other things that may boost their own voters’ turnout, including Tester’s well-funded campaign and get-out-the-vote effort, and the possibility of a ballot initiative to add abortion protections to the Montana Constitution.

Montana’s official candidate filing period runs from Jan. 11 to March 11. That is the time when we’ll get the full picture of who will be running for these and other offices.