Sanders: Montana Primary Vote Matters as Race Nears End

Vermont Senator spoke in Missoula, Billings on Wednesday

By Justin Franz

BILLINGS — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders told supporters in Montana Wednesday that he faces a “steep climb” to close Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Democratic presidential primary, but still has a chance to get more voter-backed delegates than his rival.

Fresh off a victory in West Virginia, Sanders gave no indication he’s backing down as the race enters its final weeks. Clinton’s lead is based largely on backing from unpledged “super-delegates” — Democratic party insiders not bound by the popular vote.

Sanders, a Vermont lawmaker who advocates for economic and social equality, said voters in Montana and seven other states that have yet to cast ballots can rebuff the party establishment ahead of the nominating convention if they vote for him.

“My hope is that this beautiful state will help lead the nation in the political revolution,” Sanders said, drawing a deafening cheer from the crowd of 3,000 at Metra Park in Billings.

“It’s not going to be easy. It is a steep climb and I admit it,” he said. “But if we can do really well in the next eight contests including Montana, we can end up with more pledged delegates, real delegates, elected by the people” than Clinton.

Sanders appearance in Montana’s largest city and a rally earlier in the day in Missoula marked the first stops by a major candidate in the state since the primary season got under way.

Under Montana’s primary rules, delegates will be awarded proportional to the percentage of votes each candidate gets, said Montana Democratic Party spokeswoman Kristen Cates.

That means Clinton still could pick up delegates and build upon her lead whether or not she prevails in the state’s June 7 primary.

Ann King, a 63-year-old teacher and Sanders supporter from Busby, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, said she believes Sanders would give Native Americans a “fair shake” — and she’s not giving up on him no matter the delegate count.

“I believe he still has a chance,” King said, holding a “Natives for Bernie” sign on the floor of the packed auditorium in Billings as Sanders prepared to speak. “He’s got a strong base. That’s not being acknowledged by the media, but look at what we have here.”

The last time Montana’s delegates were in play, during the 2008 primary, both Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama made campaign stops in the state.

Clinton lost the 2008 primary by 15 percentage points. But the state director for Clinton’s Montana campaign, Jenny Eck, said 2016 bring “a very different landscape” than 2008.

“Nationally, we have seen Sanders perform well in states like Montana,” Eck said. “Our plan is to run the strongest ground game that we can, and we’ll see what happens.”

Montana Democratic Party representatives said they have not yet heard anything from Clinton’s campaign regarding a visit by the candidate this primary season. Husband and former President Bill Clinton will campaign for Clinton in Billings on May 20, her campaign announced Wednesday.