A crowded field of Republican candidates are clambering for the party’s nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in the June 3 primary, with all but one of them bearing legislative experience, while the two-way race for the Democratic nomination appears to be less of a toss-up.
The five GOP candidates are former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish; state Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings; state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive; former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings; and Drew Turiano of Helena.
They are running for the House seat that first-term Republican Rep. Steve Daines is vacating in favor of a U.S. Senate run.
The Republican nominee will face off in November against one of two Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in the Democratic primary – either John Lewis, a former top aide to former Sen. Max Baucus, or former Public Service Commissioner John Driscoll.
Libertarian Mike Fellows of Missoula also will be on the fall ballot.
Campaign finance reports show Zinke had raised nearly $910,000 through March 31, while Rosendale collected about $642,000, including $500,000 in loans from himself.
Zinke had about $424,000 left in the bank on March 31, while Rosendale had about $222,000.
Stapleton had raised $373,800 and had $55,452 cash on hand; Arntzen had raised $133,275 with $51,565 cash on hand; and Turiano had raised $6,840 with $721 cash on hand.
Lewis had raised $694,500 with $511,750 cash on hand as of the March 31 filing deadline.
His only competition, Driscoll, a retired Montana National Guard colonel, has pledged not to campaign or fundraise.
Lewis, who worked for former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus for 12 years before resigning last summer, has been campaigning full time, traveling to all 56 counties and fundraising aggressively.
Although he was expected to be the lone Democratic candidate and avoid a primary contest, a surprise, 11th-hour decision by Driscoll to file as a candidate shifted the political landscape.
In a rare and weighty move, the Montana Democratic Party endorsed Lewis, who has also earned endorsements from MEA-MFT, Montana State Firemen’s Association, Montana Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana.
Lewis, having spent approximately 50 times his opponent, is expected to win, but Driscoll has emerged as a successful underdog before.
Driscoll has not received any endorsements, but his surprise candidacy smacks of his 2008 run, when he filed near the deadline and went on to win the Democratic primary for the House, despite raising and spending no money.
In that race, Driscoll upset Helena attorney Jim Hunt, who had the support of top Democrats, and drew the ire of the party as a paper candidate.
Although he won’t raise any money for the primary campaign, Driscoll said he would accept contributions if he advances to the general election.
Lewis hopes to be the first Democrat to hold Montana’s House seat since Pat Williams, who retired in early 1997. Since then, three Republicans have held the seat – Rick Hill, Denny Rehberg and now Daines.
Williams, the patriarch of Montana Democrats, has also endorsed Lewis.
“I think it would be a shock if Lewis didn’t win,” University of Montana associate professor of political science Robert Saldin said. “His party has come out really strongly in support of him, and Driscoll is unconventional by Democratic standards. He supported the Republican budget, which didn’t earn him any favors.”
While political observers say Zinke is the most likely candidate to prevail, the ultra-conservative Rosendale, who lives in Glendive, has gained popularity, particularly in eastern Montana.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander, is expected to do well in Flathead County, though he has come under persistent fire for accepting contributions from Special Operations for America, a super PAC he formed to help defeat Barack Obama’s reelection. SOFA PAC has spent or booked television ads totaling $39,970 in support of Zinke.
Saldin said the very fact that Zinke has come under fire is an indication that he is the strongest candidate.
“It looks like all eyes are on Zinke at this point. He has raised the most money and now he has been called out for not being conservative enough by some of the party leaders, which suggests that everyone is focused on him and he is perceived by the party as the guy out in front,” Saldin said.
Still, in a primary election, which typically draws a more ideological brand of party loyalist than a general election, Saldin said the attacks could have an effect.
Rosendale, who moved to Montana, has been criticized because he is a transplant from Maryland, though he has curried favor from conservative groups and Tea Party Republicans, receiving an endorsement from the Tea Party Express.
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