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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Primary Election Updates

2020 Montana Elections

06/03/20, 5:30 p.m.

Montanans cast a record number of votes for Tuesday's primary election, conducted by an all mail-in ballot. The most recent available data show more than 389,000 ballots have been returned. That blows past the 293,000 votes cast in the 2016 primary election, the last time major executive offices were up for grabs.

Listen to the audio above as MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney and YPR's Nicky Ouellet recap the statewide races.

Nicky Ouellet We saw more ballots cast for Republican candidates, tens of thousands higher than Democrats. Green Party candidates tended to get a few hundred votes.

Corin Cates-Carney In the governor's race, Montana's current U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte defeated Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Albert Olszewski for the Republican nomination. Gianforte emphasizes the importance of his business experience amid an economy impacted by the novel coronavirus.

"There's a lot of folks that are hurting right now: They've they've lost their jobs, they may not know where their next paycheck's coming from. And I'm excited to roll up my sleeves day one, and get working to get our economy open back up, get our businesses open back up, and then build on that base to create more good-paying jobs so we don't have to keep exporting our kids along with the beef and the grain."

Ouellet The governor's race was one of the first primaries called last night. Gianforte won with a majority of ballots cast, with a 26 point lead over Fox. Gianforte will face off against Democrat Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who bested Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams by 10 percentage points.

Cates-Carney Cooney went into this race with the support of current Gov. Steve Bullock, and he really leaned on his experience in the current administration and past work in state government. He's a former state legislator and secretary of state.

"As soon as we can, we want to be knocking on doors. We want to be having face-to-face conversations, and we look forward to that. That's the way elections are won in Montana."

"We're not going to let this election be purchased. Montanans spoke out loud and clear. It didn't happen in 2016. It's not going to happen now."

Whitney Williams pitched a message of giving Montana a new voice in the governor's office, saying it was time for new leadership. Now, looking toward November, the governor's race between Gianforte and Cooney will be one of the most watched races in Montana. Democrats are trying to keep their 16 year hold on the office, which Republicans have made a top priority to take.

Ouellet Another big race this fall will be the so-called "Battle of the Steves." Incumbent Republican Steve Daines will face current Gov. Steve Bullock in a contest for U.S. Senate. Their party nominations were not a surprise. They're some of the biggest names in Montana politics, and now with their match up, which was assumed, it's official.

Cates-Carney Daines is seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate, and the challenge by Bullock is expected to draw a lot of attention and outside money. The face off this fall could play a factor in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Ouellet Another top-of-the-ticket race was for Montana's single seat in the U.S. House. Six Republicans went into the primary. Matt Rosendale, the current state auditor, came out on top.

Rosendale's name is familiar to voters because he ran and lost a bid for U.S. Senate against Democrat Jon Tester in 2018. In winning his party's nomination, this time for the U.S. House, Rosendale says voters embraced his auditor record of reducing regulations and lowering his own office's operating costs. He also ran a campaign aligning himself closely to President Donald Trump.

"Now it is absolutely critical to bring everybody together and make sure that as we move forward, we focus on helping our businesses overcome these challenges, and get back to growing our economy."

Cates-Carney Throughout these races at the top of the ballots, we saw familiar names from statewide elections win out. That also played out in the Democratic primary for the U.S. House.

Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams from Bozeman claimed the nomination over state Rep. Tom Winter of Missoula. Williams ran for the seat against Gianforte two years ago. She lost, coming within five points of taking the seat that's been held by Republicans for two decades. Williams stresses the need to move past the partisan politics that's roiled Congress for years.

"All Montanans deserve an independent leader who is ready to work with people of all political stripes to deliver for Montana, someone who's never brought into the party politics and will put an end to the divisive zero-sum games that Washington politicians engage in."

Ouellet Moving into other state executive offices, on the land board, current Attorney General Tim Fox is turning out of that seat and he leaves it open. On the Republican side, Austin Knudsen came out on top over John Bennion, who is a chief deputy attorney general under Fox. Knudsen is a former speaker of the Montana House and a lawyer from Culbertson.

"I think it's a pretty sound message from the voters of Montana that they're ready for a conservative, aggressive Republican who's ready to take on the drug problem in the state of Montana, and that's what I'm going to do for Montana."

Cates-Carney On the Democratic ballot, Gov. Steve Bullock's chief legal counsel, Raph Graybill, beat Missoula lawyer and state lawmaker Kimberly Dudik for their party's primary nomination.

"Austin's going to have to explain why crime has gone up so much under his watch at Roosevelt Count. Second, I don't think Montanans are for knee-jerk, needless incarceration. I think we have to take a holistic approach that respects people, that gets people treatment."

Ouellet No surprises in the race for the office of public instruction, with two uncontested primaries there. Incumbent Republican Elsie Arntzen will square off against Democratic challenger Melissa Romano in November. That's a rematch from when the two ran against each other in 2016, when Arntzen won.

Cates-Carney The state auditor regulates the insurance and securities industries. Troy Downing took the Republican nomination over Nelly Nicol and Scott Tuxbury. Downing says his pro-business message resonated.

"I think that the message that we had from the beginning - of really having a view for that whole office of being a consumer protection agency but not getting in the way of business, you know, basically stripping regulation that is not protecting consumers - I think that resonated."

Ouellet Democratic State Rep. Shane Morigeau of Missoula won over Helena attorney Mike Winsor. Morigeau says he differs from Downing's pro-business and deregulation message. He says one of his main goals, if elected, is to make sure Montanans understand what the state auditor's office does and how it can serve them, particularly when it comes to insurance costs.

"I don't think we make regulation softer on industry at the stake of consumers being taken advantage of, or losing protections for consumers. I think we need to maintain that balance in Montana, and we just need to start making sure people understand what they're getting and what they're paying for."

Cates-Carney One of the races called this morning was the Republican secretary of state primary. Current Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobson beat Senate President Scott Sales for the nomination. Democrat Bryce Bennett ran uncontested for his party's primary.

Taking a step back from the statewide races for a moment. Earlier this week, I spoke with Montana free press reporter Eric Dietrick about some reporting he and his colleagues had been doing recently looking into the rift of GOP lawmakers, and the primary challenges going on between the relatively moderate and party hardliners.

One of the races we highlighted in that conversation was down in the Bitterrootm, in Senate District 44, between Nancy Ballance and Theresa Manzella. Manzella, the candidate much further there to the right, running on strict ideology, who pushes back against compromises with Democrats, won.

So as we turn to the general election, it'll be interesting to watch how more legislative campaigns shake out, and what kind of Republican majority we could likely see in the 2021 session.

Ouellet It is really an exciting year. You know, the 389,000 primary ballots that were returned in Montana mark a record high in primary votes. In terms of high-turnout areas, Wibaux, Prairie and Liberty counties each saw more than 80% of ballots returned.

On the lower end, a handful of counties saw half of registered voters returned their ballots. Big Horn, Roosevelt and Glacier saw the lowest turnout. And a note for context here: those three counties receive ballots from residents on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Peck and Blackfeet reservations.

06/03/20, 5 p.m.

Montana primary voters held onto an incumbent and advanced new candidates in races for the board that regulates electric utilities in the state. The closest race for the Montana Public Service Commission was for District 2 in southeast Montana, where incumbent Republican Tony O’Donnell of Billings fought for a second term against former PSC commissioner Kirk Bushman and State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov. Read more.

Bryce Bennett won the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State. He'll face Republican winner Christi Jacobsen in the general election.

06/03/20, 2 a.m.

Montanans cast a record number of votes for Tuesday's primary election, conducted by an all mail-in ballot. The most recent available data show more than 389,000 ballots have been returned. That blows past the 293,000 votes cast in the 2016 primary election, the last time major executive offices were up for grabs.

The number of ballots cast for Republican candidates was tens of thousands greater than for Democrats. Green party candidates tended to get a couple hundred votes.

Listen to the audio above for a recap of the statewide races and to hear from some of the winning candidates.

Find the full election results here:

06/02/20, 11:05 p.m.

Austin Knudsen has won the Republican nomination for Attorney General. He'll face Democratic nominee Raph Graybill.

Troy Downing has won the Republican nomination for State Auditor. He'll face Democratic nominee Shane Morigeau.

06/02/20, 10 p.m.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Matt Rosendale has won the Republican nomination for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat.

Rosendale defeated five opponents to win Tuesday’s primary election. He will face former state Rep. Kathleen Williams, the winner of the Democratic primary, in November's general election.

The 59-year-old Rosendale is the Montana state auditor and commissioner of insurance. He lost a high-profile campaign for Senate in 2018 against incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.

Rosendale is campaigning to keep a House seat that Republicans have held since 1997.

The seat is open after U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte decided to run for governor.

Rosendale defeated former Montana Republican Party Chairwoman Debra Lamm, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, Joe Dooling, Mark McGinley and John Evankovich.


HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney has won the Democratic nomination for Montana governor.

Cooney defeated first-time candidate Whitney Williams in Tuesday’s primary election. He will face U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the winner of the Republican primary, in November's general election.

The 65-year-old Cooney has a long resume in Montana politics. He was a two-term secretary of state, a former state representative and the president of the Montana Senate. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2000.

Cooney became outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock’s third lieutenant governor in 2016.

He will now run to win an office that has been occupied by a Democrats since 2005.


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Kathleen Williams has won the Democratic nomination for Montana’s U.S. House seat for the second consecutive election.

The 59-year-old former state legislator defeated current state Rep. Tom Winter in Tuesday’s primary election.

Williams will face the winner of the Republican primary in November’s general election. The GOP primary was a six-way race led by State Auditor Matt Rosendale and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

Williams will once again attempt to win a House seat that has been held by a Republicans since 1997.

In 2018, she came closer than any Democrat has over that period. She captured 46% of the vote but lost to incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte.

The House seat is now open with Gianforte running for governor.


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte has defeated Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski to win the Republican nomination for Montana governor.

The 59-year-old congressman from Bozeman will face the winner of the Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and first-time candidate Whitney Williams.

Gianforte is a former businessman who sold a start-up company to technology giant Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion. He lost the first time he ran for Montana governor in 2016 against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock, though President Donald Trump won Montana by a 20-point margin.

Gianforte, who was ambivalent toward Trump in the 2016 campaign, has since reframed himself as a staunch ally of the president.

Gianforte is perhaps best known outside Montana for assaulting a reporter the day before a 2017 special election to fill Montana’s vacant U.S. House seat. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground and breaking the reporter’s glasses.

Republicans are attempting to win the open seat after 16 years of Democratic governors. Bullock can’t run again due to term limits and is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

Steve Daines has won the Republican nomination for Senate in Montana. Daines, a first-term senator, defeated Daniel Larson and John Driscoll in Tuesday’s GOP primary. The 57-year-old Daines will move on to the general election in November, where he will face Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Bullock won the Democratic nomination in a race that could play a factor in determining which party controls the Senate.


8:25 p.m.

Gov. Steve Bullock has won Montana’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Bullock’s win Tuesday sets up a general election race between him and incumbent Republican Steve Daines. The Bullock-Daines race is expected to be a key election as Republicans defend their slim four-seat majority in the Senate.

Bullock, 54, entered the race in March, months after ending his long-shot presidential campaign. The popular two-term governor had repeatedly said he wouldn’t run against Daines, but national party figures pleaded with him to change his mind.

Bullock defeated first-time candidate John Mues in the primary.


8:17 p.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has won Montana’s Democratic presidential primary. The results Tuesday night were expected with Biden the party’s presumptive nominee.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren remained on the Montana ballot despite previously suspending their campaigns and endorsing Biden.

Montana has 25 Democratic delegates. Nineteen are allocated based on the results of the primary and six are so-called super delegates.

President Donald Trump was unopposed in the Montana GOP presidential contest.

06/02/20, 7:50 p.m.

Even before polls close tonight, Montana has seen a record number of voters casting ballots in a primary election. According to data from the Secretary of State’s office from earlier this afternoon around  367,000 Montanans had returned ballots so far. That blasts past the 290,000 votes cast in the 2016 primary.

06/02/20, 6:20 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic means primary night watch parties and speeches will look a little different this year.

Typically on election nights, candidates, particularly in up-ballot races, host in-person watch parties around the state. But with concerns about the spread of COVID-19, some campaigns are going digital while others are keeping it low key.

Some candidates are holding virtual events to speak with supporters after election polls close or the races are called. Other campaigns are foregoing public watch parties altogether and plan to push out election results on social media.

Many candidates running in down ballot races say they are holding private events with family and friends with some tentatively scheduling online addresses after the race is called.

06/02/20, 5:45 p.m.

With two hours until the polls close, the elections supervisor in Montana’s capital county says precautions to limit spreading the novel coronavirus shouldn’t impact when primary results are released. Yellowstone Public Radio's Kevin Trevellyan reports from Helena.

A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.
Credit Nicky Ouellet / Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone Public Radio
A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.

Lewis and Clark County treasurer, clerk and recorder Paulette DeHart says elections employees are social distancing. There’s also plexiglass separating officials from voters in the lobby, where the floor is marked to keep lines in 6-foot increments.

"And anybody, when they’re up walking around, pretty much everybody is wearing a mask. All of that’s new for COVID."

Yet, DeHart says those precautions haven’t seriously impeded her staff’s counting efforts.

"It’s not been so difficult this time, but come November when the lines are much longer, it will become more difficult."

DeHart says her office had already counted about three-quarters of ballots as of this morning, thanks to a law passed last legislative session that allows some counties to get a head start on ballot processing. She expects the county’s initial election results at 8 p.m. will include most votes cast in the primary.

Missoula County elections administrator Bradley Seaman says his office is also taking advantage of the new law.

"Our plan is normal results released when the polls close at 8 p.m. Updates for the news at 10 p.m. And then also a end of the day or end of counting report at midnight."

A record number of Montanans have already voted in the state’s first all mail-in ballot primary election. Ballots can be turned in until 8 p.m.

06/02/20, 4:25 p.m.

A record number of Montanans are voting in today's primary election. Yellowstone Public Radio's Rachel Cramer spoke with voters dropping off ballots in Gallatin County.

"My name is Yuki Davidoff. I am a software engineer here in Bozeman, Montana, and I really thought that the mail-in voting process was really easy. I had time to look up all the candidates names and research them a little bit more. There's a drop box outside, and lots of people to point me in the right direction."

"My name's Alex Rumpca. I'm a senior at Montana State University." As far as governor, I'd like to see it stay a Democratic governor. I definitely do support Whitney. I think she's going to stand up for public lands and keep them public."

A voter walks up to the ballot drop off in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse in Bozeman, Montana June 2, 2020.
Credit Rachel Cramer / Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone Public Radio
A voter walks up to the ballot drop off in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse in Bozeman, Montana June 2, 2020.

"I'm Wyatt Gunther, live here in Bozeman and I do landscaping for work. A really big issue for me, I feel like, is illegal immigration. I feel like we could kind of tighten down on those policies, and I think that Donald Trump has been doing a decent job on that, and I think there's more that he could do better on."

"Personally, I'm a big Greg Gianforte fan. We go to the same church, so I've known him pretty well for the past few years, and I hope that we could put the whole body-slammer thing behind us, and kind of move forward and look at policies more."

Rachel Cramer: And then what did you think about this process with the getting the ballot in the mail and having the option of mailing it in or dropping it off?

"I think it could be problematic if it's not regulated well."

"My name's Ixtla Vaughan, and I've lived here 30-some years. I'm a graphic designer and a parent. I am really disappointed in Daines for supporting wholeheartedly the current administration, which seems terrifying, and there's no checks and balances and I'm worried."

"I've been so wrecked the last couple months about our health care system and just the revelation of how many people are really in dire straits. I mean, I had a loose idea, but this has just really ripped the Band-Aid off the disparity in health and welfare."

06/02/20, 3:45 p.m.

Elections officials are counting a record number of primary votes hours before ballots are due for Montana’s first all mail-in election. Yellowstone Public Radio's Kevin Trevellyan reports there’s several key races to watch.

At the county elections office in Helena, employee and machine alike are hard at work processing votes.

Lewis and Clark County treasurer, clerk and recorder Paulette DeHart says operations are running smoothly -- "So far; knock on wood," -- and the office is getting plenty of traffic.

"We’ve been pretty hopping. We have our drop sites, and they’ve been pretty busy for the last couple of days. It’s just staying pretty busy.”

More than 341,000 Montanans submitted ballots as of Monday night, besting the previous state record from the 2016 primary by nearly 48,000 votes.

Eric Raile at Montana State University thinks governor’s and U.S. House races featuring well-known candidates could be bumping turnout.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams are both seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

"It seems to be a toss up, and people aren't quite sure what's going to happen."

Though U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte has a big cash advantage on the Republican side, Raile says one of his opponents, Attorney General Tim Fox, is popular at the state level.

The primary’s other marquee races for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House drew a crowded field after Gianforte decided not to seek another term.

"It’s seen as wide open by both parties, and you get a lot of candidates jumping into the fray."

For the Democrats, Raile says former state Rep. Kathleen Williams is favored over current state Rep. Tom Winter.

Raile says state Auditor Matt Rosendale is the Republican frontrunner over Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. tonight.

06/02/20, 2:30 p.m.

There’s a lot of political turnover taking place this fall. Four of the state’s five top elected officials now seek a new office. MTPR's Edward O’Brien has a review of the statewide land board races.

Outgoing Republican Attorney General Tim Fox wants his party’s gubernatorial nomination. Fox is challenged by Montana’s current at-large U.S. Rep., Greg Gianforte and Kalispell State Sen. Al Olszewski. All hope to replace Democratic Governor Steve Bullock who’s running for the U.S. Senate.

Democratic voters will choose between outgoing Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams.

Two contested primary races, featuring two Democrats and two Republicans are underway to replace Tim Fox in the Attorney General office.

A crowded field of Republicans is jockeying for that party’s nomination for Secretary of State. One Democrat runs unopposed.

Three Republicans and two Democrats are running primary campaigns to be Montana’s next State Auditor. Incumbent Matt Rosendale is campaigning for the U.S. House.

GOP and Democratic primaries for Superintendent of Public Instruction each have one candidate running uncontested. 

Whoever ultimately wins these races in November will also land a seat on the state land board, which oversees Montana’s trust lands.

As of Monday night, a record 341,000 votes were cast. 

06/02/20, 12:20 p.m.

Montanans Voting In Record Numbers For 2020 Primary Election

A record number of Montanans have submitted ballots for the June 2 primary election. Ballots can be dropped off at county election headquarters and other drop off sites until 8 p.m. today.

County election officials had received more than 312,000 ballots for Montana’s first all-mail-in ballot election as of Sunday night. That's nearly 19,000 more votes than the previous primary record set in 2016. Nearly 45 percent of registered voters have returned ballots for this year’s primary. That number is lower than other counts that don't include inactive voters.

06/02/20, 5 a.m.

If you haven't returned your ballot yet, you'll need to drop it off at your county election office or other designated location. Contact your county election office if you have any questions about where to return your ballot.


2020 Primaries Highlight Montana GOP's Internal Rift

Two different versions of Montana conservatism have been butting heads for years in the statehouse. And they’ll be pitted against each other again in Tuesday's primary election as GOP voters choose them between factions of the Republican party – business-minded Republicans willing to work across the aisle and party hardliners who legislate with strict ideology.

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