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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Gallatin Voters Could Decide Montana's Midterm Election

Map of Montana highlighting Gallatin County.

The Trump administration and family are paying attention to Gallatin County, Montana, as they rally support for conservative candidates in this year’s midterm election. Gallatin is a fast growing swing county unique to Montana, and rare in the country.

Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College, says that's "Because in 2012 Romney carried the county. But in 2016 Clinton carried the county."

Gallatin was the only county in Montana that flipped to support a Democratic  presidential candidate after voting for a Republican in the 2012 presidential election.

Out of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, Gallatin was one of only a couple dozen that saw that kind of flip, according to analysis from the Washington Post.

Gallatin’s Democratic turn was slight, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by only 444 votes. But in this year’s U.S. Senate race, that could be significant.

"We’re anticipating a close Senate election, and perhaps House race, so margins in these counties definitely matter," says Johnson. "And again the growing population. There may be more voters up for grabs, and true swing voters, in a place like Gallatin."

Vice President Mike Pence visited Bozeman on Tuesday to fire up support for Matt Rosendale, the Republican party’s candidate in the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.

A week earlier, Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son also stumped for Rosendale at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in Bozeman.

The race for Montana’s U.S. Senate seat could come down to counties like Gallatin.

Across the street from the fairgrounds on Tuesday, shortly before the Vice President gave a speech about needing more Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Don Keil was sitting down at the Bozeman Senior Social Center moving around pieces on a puzzle board.

"I’ll just flip a coin I think," says Keil.

Keil says he was born in Bozeman and that he’s an independent voter. He says he doesn't understand how some people can say they only support one party all the time.

He doesn't know who he’ll vote for in the Rosendale-Tester race, but he says he supported Trump in 2016.

"I like what he says, but I don’t like the guy. I think he’s doing more than people really realize he’s doing, but then he shoots his mouth off," says Keil.

Keil is one of those voters in Gallatin who says he’s not sure who he’ll vote for.

Unlike Susie Burton, who’s sitting on a couch chatting with a friend at the senior center. In the background, music is playing and a group is dancing in a nearby room. Burton is from New York where she says she sang in smokey nightclubs, but moved out to the Bozeman area more than 50 years ago.

Burton says she wants Tester out of the U.S. Senate and she supports Trump.

"I think our president is doing marvously. He keeps his promises. And not many of them do. But I think he’s really trying hard to do that, and I like the idea that he’s still working on the wall," says Burton.

Less than a mile down the road on mainstreet Tatiana Marden is sitting outside a cafe reading the Comics section of the local newspaper. Asked what issues are important to her when deciding who to vote for, Marden says, "Women’s rights. Immigration rights. I don't believe in borders. Basically keeping more public land available. Marijuana rights. (I’m) normally on the Democrat side but not strictly one side or the other."

Marden says she works odd jobs outdoors, any she can find. She’s a lot younger than the voters at the senior center.

Outside the Bozeman Library Anna Vanuga, a yoga instructor in town, says the most important issues to her when voting are women's health and a clean environment.

"I usually wait to get the ballot, and then I can go through and look at each one and then get online and read about what all their policies are. I tend to go one direction most of the time. But I haven’t made a firm decision either way," says Vanuga.

Although Vanuga says she hasn’t made up her mind, she says she tends to vote for Democrats.

Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson says along with a booming population, with many up-for-grab voters, this area also has money that could help fuel a campaign through a final push before election day.

"Gallatin County is also interesting because there is a lot more money there than in most of Montana. There’s wealthier donors. And, you know, they’re powerful," says Johnson.

Johnson credits Gallatin County’s recent liberal streak, in part, to the growth of Montana State University in Bozeman. He says Democrats have a good chance at carrying the county again and the goal for Republicans will likely to be to lose well, with a small margin of error.

But if Gallatin flips, he says it could be a sign that Democrats Jon Tester, and Kathleen Williams, the candidate for the U.S. House, will have an uphill battle on election day.

"If they’re not winning Gallatin," says Johnson, "it will be very difficult to win statewide."

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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