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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Democrats Rally In Helena

Eric Whitney
Democratic Candidate for Montana's U.S. House seat Denise Juneau, second from left, poses with supporters after the Mansfield-Metcalf dinner in Helena Saturday night.

Montana Democrats rallied in Helena Saturday night around their candidates for six statewide offices. Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan fired up the crowd and set the tone for this year's election.

"We have to make those phone calls, and we have to get out the vote," Keenan said. "Let's go! Let's go win! On to victory!"

The night was dominated by women's voices – from party leader Keenan to keynote speaker Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, to the Democrats' candidates for three of the six offices.

Denise Juneau is running to become the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress. She faces a tough challenge against the well­-funded Republican incumbent Ryan Zinke for Montana's only seat in the House.

"Growing up in Browning on the Blackfeet reservation I would have never believed it possible to launch a campaign for Congress," Juneau said. "It is possible to go from Head Start to Harvard. It is possible to go from small rural reservation town to Congress."

Secretary of State candidate Monica Lindeen also emphasized her small town roots. She's running against Republican Cory Stapleton.

Lindeen said that growing up in Huntley, with a truck driving father and waitressing mother, family discussions were more about making a living than politics. She said that she only realized that she was a Democrat after casting her first-­ever vote for Ronald Regan in 1980.

"I figured out that Democrats were the ones supporting union labor," Lindeen said. "Union labor that'd been putting food on my family's table, clothes on my back and giving us health care. I was born, raised and lived in a union house my entire life, and I'm proud to say so."

Lindeen and Juneau have both won their statewide offices twice – serving as commissioners of Securities and Insurance, and Public Instruction, respectively. That's unlike the third woman running as a Democrat for a top of the ticket race, Melissa Romano, who's never campaigned for political office. Romano is a Helena elementary school teacher seeking to replace Juneau as Montana's top education official. Her speech was shorter and had a less confident tone than the other women candidates', and never mentioned her Republican opponent, Elise Arntzen, by name.

“I will fight against all unfair, discriminatory schemes, like public funding for private or religious schools that take our public tax dollars away from the very children who need it the most,” Romano said.

Jesse Laslovich has run four successful campaigns for state legislature, and lost a bid to become attorney general in 2012. He's running to be the state's securities and insurance commissioner. Throughout the night, speakers praised their party's role in expanding health care nationwide and in Montana, but Laslovich said much work remains to be done to make health care more affordable.

“Our health insurance premiums continue to skyrocket, and while it's important to continue to hold health insurance companies accountable, we've got to start talking about cost,” Laslovich said.

Laslovich faces a well­-funded opponent in Republican Matt Rosendale, who currently serves as state Senate majority leader.

At the top of the ticket, of course, is incumbent Governor Steve Bullock, who worked hard to energize the crowd of more than 1,000 Democrats at the Lewis and Clark County fairgrounds. He hammered traditional party applause-­generating lines, like praising unions, and standing up for Native American rights, and more recent themes, like defending same-­sex marriage. Bullock said that it's crucial that Democrats keep his Republican challenger Greg Gianforte out of the Governor's office.

"The Montana that you and I love, that we love, would be fundamentally different if you hadn't worked to help me get elected in 2012," Bullock said. "No governor in the history of our state has more vetoes than I do! I don't want to run out of ink, though!"

Last-­minute candidate Larry Jent announced he'd compete against incumbent Attorney General TimFox just hours before the filing deadline, and just four days before Saturday's party rally. The attorney who previously served 13 years in the state legislator was warmly received by the crowd and displayed practiced public speaking skills.

“Never in the history of the civilized world has any political party or group anywhere sought to run the government by seeking to put it out of existence. They have given aid and comfort to the most scornful people in our midst, and it's time for them to go,” Jent said.

The Democrats Saturday night made sure to paint their Republican opponents with the broad brush of criticism that's being wielded against Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump. Montana Republicans are sure to try to exploit the current anti­establishment sentiment to argue against keeping Democrats in four of the state's top six statewide offices.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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