Race for White House Gives Montana Rare Chance at Relevance

Next month, Montana Republicans hold their statewide convention in Billings

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press

HELENA — Few remember the last time a Republican presidential candidate stumped through Montana in advance of the state’s primary election. But these days, expectations are swirling across the northern Rockies that a GOP candidate or two might make a rare appearance in the state.

As Montana Republicans prepare for their statewide convention in Billings next month, some central committees are seeing a surge in interest in attending the party gathering and, more importantly, snagging one of 24 at-large delegates to July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A visit from any of the remaining three Republican candidates would further underscore the stakes involved in the normally arcane process of selecting delegates at the party conventions.

“I don’t think we deserve the lion’s share of the attention, but I think Republicans in Montana deserve the same opportunity to see these guys. And I hope they get that opportunity,” said Rep. Jeff Essman, who chairs the Montana GOP.

He said he’s been in contact with the campaigns of all three remaining GOP presidential candidates, urging them to visit ahead of June 7, when voters in Montana and four other states will be the last to cast ballots in the GOP race.

Donald Trump is pushing to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win his party’s nomination outright, but his lead is eroding as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz surges and Ohio Gov. John Kasich hangs on.

That means the still-unsettled national race could give Montana a chance at relevance in a three-way GOP contest that may be decided by a convention floor battle in Cleveland.

Such a scenario would amplify the value of the 27 delegates allotted to Montana, which include the two dozen at-large delegates and three party-appointed officials.

While they are bound to vote for the winner of the June primary during the first round of balloting in Cleveland, Montana’s delegates are free to switch allegiances in subsequent ballots.

Joe Dooling, the chair of the GOP’s central committee in Lewis and Clark County, home to the state capital, said he has fielded an increasing number of calls from fellow state Republicans because of the tight race. And jockeying has been under way in Montana for weeks, albeit quietly, by the three campaigns to send as many supporters to the state convention as they can so they, in turn, can secure as many of the state’s delegates to the national convention.

While potential delegates aren’t required to reveal their allegiances, Dooling said many of the calls have come from Cruz supporters.

His central committee had already decided to send 10 delegates to the state convention — more than the usual, he said — but is now considering sending as many as 20.

To beat Trump, Cruz has rolled out an aggressive field operation to position his supporters to become state and national delegates.

Last month, the Cruz campaign caused a dustup when it explored the possibility of challenging petitions that gave Kasich a place on ballots in Montana, a state that’s typically an afterthought in national politics.

While it’s called the Treasure State, Montana is hardly a trove of riches for presidential candidates mining for votes and convention delegates. Its scant number of delegates hardly compares to the cornucopias of California and New Jersey, both of which also hold among the last-in-the-nation primaries in June.

For once, Susan Lake, president of the Republican Women of Lake County, considers her primary vote a precious commodity that, she said, will have to be earned.

“We’ve been little fish in a little pond for too long,” Lake said.