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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Voter Voices: Montana Democrats Struggling For Answers

Katie Mehrens
Edward O'Brien

Donald Trump won Montana by a 20-point margin, but Missoula was Clinton country. Hillary Clinton got almost 52 percent of the vote in Missoula County. We recently sent reporters to hear from Montana counties where Trump won big. Today, we hear from Clinton’s supporters.

Every Hillary Clinton voter I spoke with had a theory on why she lost.

"It was an underestimation of the white rural vote," said Katie Mehrens.

Dallas Level said, "I’m going to blame the Electoral College. She just reached over a million popular votes more than Trump, which is insane."

"The views that he carries and the stuff that he says outright are a lot of the things that people think to themselves," said Rhianna Major.

Leah Gant said, "I think they probably like the arrogance that Trump has. I think they like that he has that 'I don’t care' attitude, and they probably think that’s what we need."

But these voters had a much more difficult time answering my next question: What’s next for the Democrats?

"You know, I honestly don’t know. That’s a great question, and I haven’t really thought about it," Mehrens says.

"Well, I guess we just have to work with what we have," answers Level."

Mehrens and Level are both University of Montana students. They’re not the only Democrats struggling for answers in the wake of the drubbing they took on Election Day. The highest ranking party officials in Washington, D.C. are asking themselves that same question and hoping to develop strategies to win voters back by the 2018 midterms.

I aimed to take a quick – admittedly, very unscientific – snapshot of how Missoula Democrats are feeling right now.

If 24-year-old UM graduate student Mehrens is any indication, they’re not in good mood. She’s very worried about the implications of a Trump administration on immigration and environmental issues.

"And I am concerned about the LBGTQA community because I’m not only a woman, which is a lesser demographic, but I’m also bisexual," says Mehrens. "I’m concerned for myself and for my friends. I actually have family and friends who are fleeing the country now because they’re so afraid of Trump."

She says her cousin and his husband just got married.

"And they’re actually moving to France because they’re so afraid of what’s going to happen – that their marriage is going to be taken away from them," Mehrens says. “And I also have a friend who’s Muslim who’s also leaving the country because she doesn’t feel safe here anymore. I can’t say that I really blame them."

Mehrens says she strongly supported Senator Bernie Sanders during the primary, but decided to vote for Hillary on November 8.

"A lot of us – a lot of the younger generation – were really hoping for significant change away from your everyday political situation with people like Bernie Sanders. We’re still kind of holding on to that. Too many people voted third party," says Mehrens.

"I voted 3rd party with Gary Johnson," says 33-year-old Travis Peterson. Peterson owns a small brewery in Sidney. He was in downtown Missoula meeting with customers on Front Street.

"I didn’t feel like either of the other two main party candidates were really worth my vote," Peterson says.

Travis Peterson
Credit Edward O'Brien
Travis Peterson

Peterson thinks Trump’s rhetoric is way too inflammatory and Clinton made too many mistakes during both her campaign and her tenure as Secretary of State. Peterson adds he was shocked when he woke up on November 9 to learn Republicans had swept the election map.

Given the margin of that victory, Peterson says he was equally surprised that Montana’s Democratic Governor, Steve Bullock, retained his seat. Bullock won his tight race against Republican challenger Greg Gianforte.

"And I’m a little concerned, being from eastern Montana that we’re going to have the same shake as we’ve gotten in the last couple of years with Bullock, meaning eastern Montana often gets forgotten about," says Peterson. "We’re a long way from Helena."

He says the state ignored eastern Montana’s pleas for help with infrastructure funding at the height of the Bakken oil boon.

I met Leah Gant in front of the vacant Missoula Mercantile. Gant’s a newcomer to Montana. She moved to Missoula from Washington State about four months ago. She says Clinton was the clear choice for her vote:

"She just had a lot more going on for my [African American] community that I felt that she’d be able to help," says Gant.

She says Donald Trump’s swagger impressed and emboldened a lot of people.

'It’s scary, you know? You never know what’s going to happen. Are you gonna walk down the street and walk past a group of people who feel like now that Trump’s in, he’s president – and now they feel like they can do whatever they want to do."

Leah Gant.
Credit Edward O'Brien
Leah Gant.

Gant wants Democrats to offer specific plans to help people.

"People who are on public assistance are scared that they’re not going to be able to take care of their families, says Gant. "To make those people feel secure enough to know that everything’s going to work out."

For Democrats, the path forward right now is uncertain at best. Back on the University of Montana campus, Katie Mehrens thinks Democrats now more than ever need to stand together in solidarity.

"We’re not just going to let this tarnish everything we’ve tried to build," says Mehrens. "It’ll be ok. It’s going to be a really hard four years, but we can still make it if we just don’t stop fighting for what we really believe in."

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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