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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Party Delegates Talk Front-runners Ahead Of Nominating Conventions

Seal of the U.S. Congress.

Now that May 25 has been set as the date for Montana's special election to fill the seat Ryan Zinke vacated in the U.S. House of Representatives, the next step is picking candidates.

Montana's Democratic Party has booked their nominating convention for this Sunday, March 5 at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena.

The Republican Party's convention will be held the following day, Monday, March 6, also at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena.

On Tuesday, one day before the election was scheduled, we talked to a couple of delegates who will vote to select their party's candidates.

Kristi Ellwood is vice chair of the Lincoln County Democratic Party in Libby:

"I think that all of us feel that our number one concern is that this candidate be a winnable candidate. Name recognition will play a large part to that," Ellwood said.

Eight people have announced as candidates for the Democratic Party nomination. They include: John Meyer, Kelly McCarthy, Lee "Link" Neimark, Gary Stein, Tom Weida and Dan West.

Lincoln County Democratic Vice Chair Kristi Ellwood says two other candidates have the most widespread name recognition:

"Rob Quist is, he's a household name. Amanda Curtis is also more of a household name, and Dan West. Those are the three in our area that I've heard about," said Ellwood.

Quist is a rancher in the Flathead Valley, better known as a musician. Amanda Curtis is a Butte schoolteacher who serves in Montana House. And Dan West is a former staffer for Senator Max Baucus and an Obama administration appointee to NASA.

On the Republican side we talked to Delegate Joe Dooling, chair of the GOP in Lewis and Clark County.

"I think there are probably a top tier and a bottom tier," Dooling said. "Definitely the top tier you see Ed Buttrey and Greg Gianforte. You see some other candidates that have so low name ID and no ability to run a statewide campaign."

Ed Buttrey is a state senator and businessman from Great Falls. Greg Gianforte is the Bozeman software entrepreneur who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year. The six other Republicans vying for their party's nomination are Carl Glimm, Eugene Graf, Ken Miller, Dean Rehbien, Drew Turiano and Ed Walker.

Unlike Democrats, Republican candidates have all had to pay a fee to run for their party's nomination. That fee is $1,740.

GOP Delegate Joe Dooling:

"In my opinion you've got have some of your own wherewithal, because you just can't raise the money as fast as you're going to spend it."

Dooling said that he's committed to support Gianforte, and that he doesn't have a good feel for how his fellow Republicans are leaning in Lewis and Clark County, let alone statewide. He says he thinks the odds favor Republicans retaining the seat:

"To me, the biggest challenge will be if the Democrats feel like they have a shot and they dump money in it," said Dooling.

Montana's House seat is one of four that's opened up following Trump administration appointments, and Dooling says the National Democratic party could target it:

"If the Democrats take this House seat —you have a state where Trump won by 20 points, 22 points — he wins by 22 points and then they turn around and elect a Democrat. That's going to be nationwide news, saying 'Trump is on the wrong path.' Right? If a Republican gets elected to it, they'll be, 'business as usual, it's Montana.' It is what it is."

Kristi Ellwood, the vice chair of the Lincoln County Democratic Party, agrees with Dooling that money is going to play a big part in the special election:

"If Mr. Gianforte becomes the frontrunner for the GOP, then we're up against a lot of money, and that's going to be difficult for us because in advertising and getting the word out — that's pretty influential."

Ellwood emphasized that she speaks only for herself, not her entire party, and that her read is that Democrats in Lincoln County haven't yet made up their minds for who they want to run for the House seat.

"Kind of premature to make up your mind, because we’re going to the store, and we're going to listen and see what they have to say, and then we'll choose wisely, hopefully."

The "going to the store," Ellwood talked about means hearing from all her party's candidates at the nominating convention in Helena this Sunday. Republicans shop their convention the following day, Monday, March 6, also in Helena.

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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