Outlook 2020: Big Races on the Horizon

Montanans will be voting for governor, U.S. House and Senate on 2020 ballots

By Tristan Scott
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon File Photo

Montana voters will have plenty to ponder on their 2020 ballots as Republicans mount an aggressive front, with a slate of candidates making bids for the governor’s office and other powerful positions in a host of statewide races.

As GOP strategists tie the party to President Donald Trump and his policies in hopes of riding a wave of economic optimism to victory, Democrats are portraying a state that has flourished under its party’s leadership for 16 years despite Republican efforts to undermine key accomplishments like Medicaid expansion.

Few of the Democratic candidates for statewide races have matched the fundraising acumen of their GOP counterparts, a point that has buoyed confidence among Republican leaders even as they keep a close watch on late entries.

For much of the past year, the wild card candidate has been Gov. Steve Bullock, the two-term Democrat who can’t run again for the state’s top executive position, and whose unsuccessful presidential bid has prompted a torrent of speculation that he may yet tangle with incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in that high-profile race.

So far, Bullock has been adamant in his resistance to running for a Senate seat, however, dealing a blow to Democrats’ chances of unseating Daines in his bid for a second term.

“The Republicans are doing really well with fundraising across the board and the party is united in getting our candidates elected,” Don “Don K” Kaltschmidt, chair of the Montana Republican Party and a prominent Flathead Valley businessman, told the Beacon. “Nevertheless, all of these races could be very competitive and we’re not taking anything for granted. I do think Daines is going to be OK, but if Bullock gets in he could be a threat. I have to be cautious of that.”

With the governor’s seat open, Republicans are optimistic they can occupy the state house for the first time in 16 years — Democrat Brian Schweitzer served two terms before Bullock’s tenure — and three GOP hopefuls are vying for the party’s nomination in the June primary.

Attorney General Tim Fox was thought to the Republican favorite in the gubernatorial race, until U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte announced his candidacy for the second time. Since then, Gianforte has raised $1.1 million compared to Fox’s $450,000 raised through September, while state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell has garnered support from the party’s conservative wing.

Kaltschmidt characterized the competitive primary race as “healthy” and pledged a full-throated endorsement of the successful candidate going into November’s general election.

“Obviously we have people on the Fox team, the Gianforte team and the Olszewski team, and they all feel particularly strong about their candidate,” Kaltschmidt said. “And that means it will be a healthy primary. But we will all get behind the candidate who wins. The base is very motivated and I think people will get out and vote.”

Democrats have found their leading candidate in Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, though primary challengers include Whitney Williams, of Missoula, whose father is former Montana congressman Pat Williams, a Democrat whose family’s political clout could yield a groundswell of fundraising support.

Other Democrats who have entered the race are Montana House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, and Reilly Neill, a former state legislator from Livingston.

Democrats have taken aim at Republican candidates for their support of striking down the Affordable Care Act, which they say could jeopardize health care for as many as 150,000 Montanans.

The Montana Democratic Party recently criticized Fox for signing onto a legal challenge to the health care law in the U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as other Republican candidates in the governor’s race and other statewide contests.

“This attitude of politics first and Montanans last by Tim Fox, Steve Daines, Greg Gianforte, and [State Auditor and U.S. House candidate] Matt Rosendale has to stop,” Robyn Driscoll, executive director of the Montana Democrats, said. “Real lives are at stake.”

Driscoll pointed to Montana’s textured political makeup and the independent streak of its voters as evidence that the upcoming election season is anyone’s game.

Despite the confidence of Republicans, the party can’t lean on the power of incumbency in the lion’s share of its statewide races, including the contest for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

With Gianforte’s decision to run for governor again (he challenged Bullock unsuccessfully in 2016), the race for the House is wide open and crowded with eight candidates, including Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who lost his 2018 bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, and Kathleen Williams, a former Democratic state lawmaker who in 2018 lost to Gianforte but earned high praise for her fundraising prowess and chops on the campaign trail.

Joining Rosendale on the GOP ticket is Montana Secretary State Corey Stapleton, Corvallis School Superintendent Tim Johnson, former Montana Republican Party Chair Debra Lamm, of Livingston, and Joe Dooling, a farmer and rancher from Helena.

“I think the House race is going to be very competitive,” Kaltschmidt said, acknowledging that Williams is the likely Democratic nominee. “We are going to have to work to keep that seat.”

Other statewide contests include the race for Montana Attorney General, an open seat featuring a pair of Republicans — former state House Speaker Austin Knudsen and Helena attorney Jon Bennion, who is chief deputy for Fox — against state Democratic Rep. Kim Dudik and Raph Graybill, a Great Falls Democrat who works as chief legal counsel for the governor.

Stapleton’s run for the House leaves the race for Secretary of State open, with Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, running as the only Democrat. Meanwhile, four Republicans have joined the hunt, including Montana Supreme Court Clerk Bowen Greenwood; State Sen. President Scott Sales; state Rep. Forrest Mandeville; and Christi Jacobsen, who serves as chief of staff for Stapleton.

Similarly, the race for State Auditor is open with Rosendale opting to run for the U.S. House, inviting former U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing to seek the GOP nomination, drawing a primary challenge from Nelly Nicol of Billings. State Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, will run for his party’s nomination in June.

Montana voters will see a rematch in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction as Republican incumbent Elsie Arntzen seeks reelection against a familiar challenger in Helena teacher Melissa Romano, who lost by a narrow margin in 2016.

Almost everyone agrees that elections in Montana are anything but predictable as independent voters swing across the political spectrum, but regardless of outcome, the 2020 election season promises to engage a high turnout in voters energized by the current political climate.

The 2020 primary election is June 2 and the general is Nov. 3.

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