This story is the first of a two-part series previewing Montana’s 2018 election year.
Montana’s 2018 general election may be considered an “off year,” with a limited menu of big-time races – but those on the front line of politics in Big Sky country are gearing up for some epic battles.
The marquee race, of course, is the re-election contest of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, considered a potentially vulnerable Democrat in a state President Trump won by 20 percentage points.
“It’s definitely a top-10 race in the country, because it was such a close race (in 2012) and so much money was spent,” says Montana State University political scientist David Parker.
As many as six Republicans are vying for the nomination to challenge Tester, 61, who’s running for a third consecutive term. Through September, Tester had raised nearly $8 million in campaign funds and had $5.4 million in the bank.
And then there’s the re-election attempt of newly minted Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who won Montana’s only U.S. House seat in a special election on May 25.
Gianforte is running for a second term, but at least six Democrats are competing for the chance to take him on – and Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan says she feels good about Democrats’ chances to win this seat for the first time since 1994.
“We have a very damaged, sitting incumbent that has accomplished nothing in a do-nothing Congress,” she told MTN News. “We’re going to take him out this time.”
The Tester contest will overshadow everything else on the 2018 ballot in Montana, with tens of millions of dollars spent on TV ads, social media efforts and on-the-ground organizing.
Yet while Tester is seen as a big target in a Trump state, Parker says it’s not certain the race will be among the top U.S. Senate contests in the country. Tester doesn’t have a high-profile opponent, and it remains to be seen whether Republicans will make it competitive, he says.
Parker also says 2018 has the potential to be a “wave election,” in Democrats’ favor, as the popularity of President Trump remains historically low nationwide.
That type of electoral momentum could make Tester’s life easier in 2018 and spell trouble for Gianforte -- but it’s not the only force in play, he adds.
“The big X factor is the economy,” Parker says. “The economy is doing well, and if the economy continues to do well, that’s going to kind of stop some of the momentum for the Democrats.”
But if the 2018 election is to turn on the reputation of President Trump, that’s a bet Montana Republicans are willing to make.
“Trump won by 20 points here,” says Debra Lamm, chair of the Montana Republican Party. “And we get calls every day -- `What are you doing to support the president?’”
Lamm says the Montana GOP hopes to build on its 2016 success by preaching its message of lower taxes, higher-paying jobs and getting rid of unnecessary regulations for business.
“That message, I think, is the right message at the right time in Montana,” she told MTN News. “We now have five out of the seven statewide and national elected candidates. … I think people are anxious to take that next (U.S.) Senate seat.”
Republicans won four of the five state offices on the ballot in 2016, losing only the governor’s race, and held onto Montana’s U.S. House seat.
Keenan says winning the Tester race is the top priority for Democrats, and that they know it will be a close, hard-fought contest.
“Montanans love Jon Tester and he’s going to get re-elected,” she says. “He is just relentless about holding Washington accountable, and he works hard every day for Montanans.”
Lamm says Republicans will go after Tester by “showing Montana who (he) really is,” claiming that he presents himself differently in the state than how he votes in the Senate.
Of the six Republicans in the U.S. Senate race, state Auditor Matt Rosendale is the likely favorite to win the nomination, Parker says.
The other GOP Senate candidates are former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings, state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, business owner Ron Murray of Belgrade and financial adviser James Dean of Havre.
Also on the ballot next year in Montana are two state Supreme Court races and 125 legislative seats.
Justice Beth Baker is running for re-election, and whoever is appointed this year by Gov. Steve Bullock to succeed retiring Justice Mike Wheat must immediately run for election in 2018, for the remaining four years of Wheat’s term.
In the legislative races, Republicans will attempt to continue their stranglehold on majorities in the Senate and House.
Both parties say they’re recruiting a good crop of legislative candidates, although Keenan says outrage over many actions of President Trump has riled Democrats, leading to more people wanting to be involved in 2018.
Still, Keenan says she knows that for Democrats in Montana, winning elections statewide or in certain parts of the state is often an uphill climb.
“We have more enthusiasm now than I’ve seen in a very long time,” she says. “But, in politics, everything changes on a dime, so we can never say what happened in the past will happen in the future. … There is no race in Montana that the Democrats don’t have to fight to win.”
Next: A closer look at the source of campaign funds in the Tester U.S. Senate race.