Montana’s 2020 elections: Political turning point for state?

Posted at 11:59 AM, Dec 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-30 11:08:00-05

On the brink of the biggest Montana election years in two decades, state Republicans make no secret of their political playbook for 2020: Tie themselves to President Trump and his policies and ride to victory statewide – including the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years.

“I think it’s a Republican year; I think with the president on the ballot box, we’re going to have a really good turnout,” Don Kaltschmidt, chair of the Montana Republican Party, told MTN News. “If we have the (Montana) House, the Senate and a Republican governor, we’re going to be able to move further with the Trump economy.”

Montana Democrats will argue the state has done well under their leadership from the governor’s office – and that the GOP is bent on undercutting things like public education and Medicaid expansion, which is helping keep rural hospitals open.

And as for the shadow of President Trump?

In a state where Trump remains relatively popular, Democratic Party leaders and some statewide candidates tread lightly, preferring to focus on local issues and touting Montana voters as a “really independent lot.”

“We have a Republican and Democratic U.S. senator in the state of Montana,” says Robyn Driscoll, the Democratic Party chair. “We have a Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state, state auditor.”

Yes, but in 2016, with Trump at the top of the ticket, Montana Republicans won five out of six statewide offices on the ballot, including three that Democrats had dominated for decades.

Now, they’re eyeing that sixth position – governor – and banking they’ll also hold onto Montana’s sole U.S. House seat for the 13th consecutive election and a U.S. Senate spot, where Republican Sen. Steve Daines is a heavy favorite for re-election.

David Parker, chair of the political science department at Montana State University, says 2020 is clearly a pivotal election year for Montana – and that Republicans have reason to feel confident.

They’ve fielded stronger candidates in most statewide races, while Democrats seem to be struggling with how to appeal to a Montana demographic that’s become older and more conservative and how to counter the president’s popularity in rural America.

Still, Parker says the president – and whoever Democrats nominate for their presidential candidates – can still be something of a wild card in this presidential election year.

“I think it all comes down to, whether Trump is a net positive, is if the economy continues to do well,” Parkers told MTN News. “But, don’t forget, we have a president where the economy is doing well, and even here in Montana, he’s only at about 50 percent approval rating.”

Also, while Republicans are starting from a position of strength, they are giving up or losing the power of incumbency in four statewide seats: U.S. House, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor. The incumbents are either termed out or choosing to run for other offices in 2020.

Here’s a closer look at the status of the statewide races, as the start of 2020 candidate filing is just two weeks away:

Governor: Just about everyone agrees that governor is the marquee contest in 2020 for Montana. The seat is open, because term limits prevent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock from running again, and Republicans want badly to end the 16-year old Democrats have on the office.

Three Republicans are battling for the GOP nomination: Attorney General Tim Fox, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell.

Parker says the race is “Greg Gianforte’s to lose, at this point” because of the congressman’s appeal to conservatives and fundraising success so far. Through September, Gianforte had outraised Fox by $1.1 million to $450,000 – and, he’s been telling people he’s ready to open his own sizable wallet to self-fund, if necessary.

On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is the best-known candidate, but he faces a potentially well-funded challenge in the primary from Whitney Williams, a Missoula businesswoman and daughter of former Montana congressman Pat Williams.

Montana House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls and former state legislator Reilly Neill of Livingston also are in the Democratic primary.

Kaltschmidt, the GOP chair, says Montanans are “ready for a Republican governor,” who can work with the GOP-controlled Legislature to enact conservative policies that have been blocked by Democratic vetoes.

Those policies include less government spending, working with the Trump administration on economic policies, and hot-button issues like banning “sanctuary cities,” Kaltschmidt says.

Parker says if Republicans take over the governor’s office, Montanans likely can expect proposals to cut certain taxes, provide public support or encouragement of private and charter schools, and support natural-resource extractive industries.

Democrats say they’ll be telling voters that public schools, public health coverage and access to public lands will all be at risk if a Republican becomes governor.

When asked what Democrats can offer Montana voters, including those in rural areas, Driscoll said “keeping health insurance for thousands of (low-income) Montanans, keeping our access to public lands and making sure our public education system is state-of-the-art.”

U.S. Senate: Daines, who in 2014 became the first Republican to win the seat since 1913, is not facing a well-known challenger. Many Democrats hoped Gov. Bullock would challenge Daines – and some Republicans think he still may – but Bullock has been adamant in rejecting the idea.

Daines is a staunch ally of President Trump, but has been taking steps to shore up his bipartisan credibility, such as his introduction this month of a bill to settle the Flathead tribal water compact.

Four Democrats, none of whom has ran for or held state office before, are vying to challenge him: Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, Mike Knoles, Loma rancher and Navy veteran John Mues, and Bozeman nonprofit executive Cora Neumann.

While last year’s U.S. Senate race in Montana (the re-election of Democrat Jon Tester) drew nearly $70 million in spending and four presidential visits, the 2020 race is attracting scant national attention.

“I think a lot of the national donors are going to be putting their money into other competitive races … before they put Montana on the radar screen,” says Parker.

U.S. House: An open seat, because incumbent Gianforte is running for governor. Eight people are in the race so far, but the early front-runners for the nomination are Republican state Matt Rosendale, who lost last year to Tester, and Kathleen Williams, the Democratic former state lawmaker who lost in 2018 to Gianforte.

Parker says this race will likely be one of the most closely contested races in 2020 in Montana and noted that the primary contests should be “interesting” as well.

In addition to Rosendale, the GOP primary features Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, Helena-area farmer and rancher Joe Dooling, Corvallis Superintendent of Schools Tim Johnson and former state Republican Party Chair Debra Lamm of Livingston.

The three-way Democratic primary is among Williams, Simms rancher Matt Rains and state Rep. Tom Winter of Missoula.

Republicans have held this seat since 1997, but Williams lost to Gianforte by only five percentage points in 2018 and has shown herself to be a prodigious fundraiser.

Attorney general: Another open seat currently held by Republicans. Four young, relatively unknown candidates – two Democrats, two Republicans – are battling for this position, which is a frequent launching point for a future run at governor.

Republican Austin Knudsen, a former House speaker, is trying to appeal to the conservative wing of the party in the primary against Jon Bennion, a Helena attorney who is chief deputy under Fox.

On the Democratic side, state Rep. Kim Dudik is facing off against Raph Graybill, the governor’s chief lawyer and descendant of a prominent political family in Great Falls.

Secretary of state: Another open seat held by Republicans now. Bryce Bennett, a state representative from Missoula, is the only Democrat vying for this office that oversees state elections.

But the contest has attracted four Republicans, including recently elected state Supreme Court Clerk Bowen Greenwood, state Senate President Scott Sales, state Rep. Forrest Mandeville and Christi Jacobsen, who is chief of staff for incumbent Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

Stapleton has chosen to run for U.S. House in 2020.

Auditor: Yet another GOP-held seat that is open, because incumbent Rosendale is running for the U.S. House.

Big Sky businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing is the leading Republican, although he faces a primary challenge from Nelly Nicol of Billings. The Democrat in the race is state Rep. Shane Morigeau of Missoula.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Incumbent Republican Elsie Arntzen faces a rematch with the Democrat she narrowly defeated in 2016, teacher Melissa Romano of Helena.

Romano has the strong backing of the state’s largest union, the Montana Public Employees Federation, although her campaign took something of a hit this month, when her husband, Eric Lehman, a former teacher, pleaded guilty to felony possession of dangerous drugs.

After a traffic stop in August, authorities found cocaine, LSD, methamphetamine and psilocybin mushrooms in Lehman’s vehicle.