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Campaign Beat: Breaking down Montana's 2022 House races

Sally Mauk Holly, for the first time in 30 years, Montanans will be voting to send two representatives to the U.S. House, one from the Eastern District and one from the West. And since it's a new seat, the Western District does not have an incumbent, while Republican incumbent Matt Rosendale will try to win reelection in that Eastern District. So let's start with that open seat in the Western District, and first of all, find out who has filed to run so far in the Democratic primary.

Who's running

Holly Michels Yes, so far we've seen quite a bit of interest to start with. We've got Monica Tranel, she's a lawyer and former staff attorney at the Public Service Commission. She's in Missoula now. She's also an Olympian for rowing. Voters in that part of the state might recall seeing her name on the ballot in the 2020 PSC race there.

Then going over to Bozeman we have Cora Neumann, who's a nonprofit executive, and she's been engaged with government at the national level before, and now works on public health issues. Again, people might recognize her name from her bid for U.S. Senate in 2020 before she, like nearly all of the other Democratic candidates, dropped out of that race when former Gov. Steve Bullock entered.

The third candidate we have is Tom Winter. He previously served a term in the State House from Missoula. Winter, before he was in the Legislature, ran a home health care business. He now works to expand broadband access in underserved communities. He, like the others, he's also run for Congress before. He was in the Democratic primary for the House in 2020.

Then we have had one candidate, Laurie Bishop, who was a state legislator from Livingston, join the race, but she has since dropped out.

Who's raised the most money?

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, these candidates have some name recognition, and they're well into fundraising. And even though it's much too soon to declare a frontrunner in this primary race, it does seem Bozeman's Cora Neumann has a clear lead in money raised so far, right?

Rob Saldin She's up at $765,000. Monica Tranel is at $416,000. So, over $300,000 behind Neuman. And then Tom Winter, who did get a late start, but he is way back at $53,000.

There are a few reasons, I think, why we pay attention to fundraising. It's not necessarily because the candidate with the most money always wins, but there is no way of getting around the fact that money is important for running a credible campaign.
Rob Saldin

And, you know, Sally, there are a few reasons, I think, why we pay attention to fundraising. It's not necessarily because the candidate with the most money always wins, but there is no way of getting around the fact that money is important for running a credible campaign, especially for candidates like this crop of Democrats who, you know, maybe have a little bit of name recognition but are nowhere nearly as well known as some of the people they expect to be facing when we get around to the general election. And so you've got to have cash on hand to get your name and message out to make people aware that you exist.

Fundraising is also seen as a kind of proxy for the level of support these candidates are able to generate. And, you know, we don't have public polling yet, so money is kind of the next best gauge. It is, of course, far from perfect in measuring public support, but it's the metric we've got. And by that metric, you're right, Sally, Neumann is definitely out front. But I do think Tranel's fundraising totals to date suggest that she can be a serious contender. You know, Tom Winter is the one you have to wonder about. I think the question there is whether he's going to be able to mount a serious challenge for the nomination, or is he going to be a candidate that effectively pulls some votes away from one of these other two leading candidates. And if that's the case, well, which one does he pull from?

Sally Mauk A lot of Newmann's money is coming from out of state donors. Do voters care about something like that?

Rob Saldin You know, I'm a little skeptical that they do. I mean, you know, in an ideal world, that's probably not how it would work. But you know, that is awfully deep into the weeds. And I just don't think that most voters follow these races at that level. You know, it's not surprising. We will hear that with regard to Newmann, she's spent a lot of time in California and whatnot and is relatively new to the state. And so that's kind of a natural line of attack for people who see her as maybe the frontrunner in this thing.

Name recognition

Sally Mauk Holly, Republicans vying to win that new Western District seat includes some familiar names.

Holly Michels Yeah, that would be Ryan Zinke, who's probably the best known to most Montanans on that side of the race. He's actually been the state's congressman before he held that seat, until President Trump appointed him to secretary of the interior. His political history, I think, undoubtedly increases his profile, but it also does come with some baggage and a list of scandals that are attached to his name.

We also have former State Senator Al Olszewski. He's a surgeon up in the Flathead. In his time in the Legislature he was known for pushing pretty conservative legislation around social issues. He also previously ran for governor in the 2020 Republican primary and was in the U.S. Senate Republican primary in 2018. I think what's interesting with Olszewski, he's trying to carve out this spot as most aligned with Trump. Even though Zinke was in the Trump cabinet.

And then we have Mary Todd, who's also from Kalispell. She's made the focus of her campaign her son's death in Singapore. It was ruled a suicide, but she believes he was murdered and she spent a lot of time pushing for a congressional investigation. And she's making her campaign about saying that's given her experience working with and understanding shortcomings of the federal government.

And then there's two people Matthew Jette, who as the Missoula address and Allen Harley McKibben in Columbia Falls who've also filed candidacy with FEC, but we haven't seen much from those candidates.

Sally Mauk Rob, Ryan Zinke has the clear fundraising edge, not just in his primary race, but among all the candidates for this seat. And that's no surprise, given his history.

Rob Saldin Yeah, exactly. I mean, Zinke, he comes into this as the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination and I think for the general election as well. He's well known for all the reasons you just mentioned Holly, and it shows in his fundraising totals; he's already pulled in $1.4 million, right? So that's roughly twice Cora Neumann's total and about a million more than Olszewski, who I think is his top GOP competitor.

Sally Mauk Holly, in the Eastern District race, Matt Rosendale, as an incumbent congressman, has the frontrunner status, but that does not mean he's not being challenged, both in the primary and the general election.

Holly Michels Yeah, like you said, Rosendale, he's in the seat now. He was a state auditor before that. He's also made various bids for public office before. I think, probably most notably in 2018 against Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester. I think since getting elected to this seat, Rosendale has carved out a place in the farther-right reaches of the Republican Party. MTN's Mike Dennison had a good story about Rosendale's first year in office, highlighting how many votes he took while in that seat.

The Eastern District is reliably Republican, and Republicans also have an edge in the new Western District because of how the districts have been drawn up. But how much of an edge is the question that Democrats are asking.
Sally Mauk

And you're right, there are a couple other Republicans who filed candidacy. There's Charles Walking Child of Helena, and James Boyette of Bozeman. And then on the Democratic side, we've got Jack Ballard. He's an outdoors writer from Rosebud. He previously ran in that Democratic Senate primary in 2020. He withdrew because of a health condition in that race, but said he's recovered from that and that shouldn't affect his bid this time around. Other Democrats we have are Penny Ronning, who's a former Billings City Council member and advocates against human trafficking. And then Skylar Williams, who in a biography on his website talks about challenges he faced growing up and says he'd want to make sure the state's tribal nations have a voice along with the rest of Montanans in Congress. And then there's also an independent candidate we haven't seen too much from, but Curt Andrew Zygmond from Billings.

Do the new districts favor one party?

Sally Mauk Rob, the Eastern District is reliably Republican, and Republicans also have an edge in the new Western District because of how the districts have been drawn up. But how much of an edge is the question that Democrats are asking, how much of an edge Republicans have in that new Western District.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that is the question Sally. And that was an issue when the lines for these districts were being drawn by the commission. And the biggest takeaway for me with what we ended up with is that Bozeman ended up in the Western District. You know, going into this thing, that was, to me, the big question mark. And I think the number one priority for Democrats was getting Bozeman into the West. Now you wouldn't necessarily know that they got that win by the way people reacted to the final map. Democrats actually tended to be a little upset, or at least they claim they were. And, you know, at the end of the process, they did lose some of those final battles. You know, they'd proposed, for instance, carving Kalispell out of the Flathead and placing that into the Eastern District. But the chair sided with the Republicans on that one. Democrats were also unhappy that Helena ended up in the East. And you know, that is a tough pill to swallow for Helena, which geographically and historically and culturally certainly has more in common with the West. And of course, it was part of the old Western District, you know, back 30 years ago before we got reduced down to the single statewide district.

But the reality, Sally, is that it wasn't possible to just reinstate the old dividing line, because of population growth that afforded us this second seat has been overwhelmingly in the West, and the two districts have to be roughly equal in terms of population. So something from the old map had to shift to the East. Something had to give. But still, I think if you go back to the beginning of this whole process, I think Democrats got what they wanted. Bozeman is in the West, which they saw, I think, rightly, as essential to making that Western District competitive for them. The big question is, I think, will it be enough? Because the state has shifted toward the Republican Party, I think, quite clearly. And I think Republicans still -- even in this reshaped Western District with Bozeman, which the Democrats wanted — I think Republicans still probably have a bit of an edge.

Voter turnout and conventional wisdom

Sally Mauk One final question for you both. Midterm elections like this one historically have low voter turnout, and that usually hurts challengers more than anyone. Do either of you see this election bucking that low turnout trend yet? Holly?

Holly Michels Whew, I don't think so. Rob would have a much better gauge on this than me, but just thinking about elections I've covered. We don't have Trump on the ballot. The last midterm I covered was Tester-Rosendale, which was a pretty blockbuster race that brought a lot of attention to Montana. I do think the Western seat is probably going to generate a lot of interest for people who can vote in that race. So that might be one, but I just don't know if there's much else that would draw people. And I'm also pretty curious to see how legislative changes to how Montanans vote might play out in this election.

Turnout always dips in midterms, of course. And traditionally that's been seen as a dynamic that benefits Republicans. But a lot of the old conventional wisdom around turnout and which party benefits from it has been called into some question in recent years.
Rob Saldin

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think Holly is right-on on that. You know, just one other thing that occurs to me is that turnout always dips in midterms, of course. And traditionally that's been seen as a dynamic that benefits Republicans. But a lot of the old conventional wisdom around turnout and which party benefits from it has been called into some question in recent years. The old assumption was that higher turnout was good for Democrats, be it in a midterm or a presidential year. And a lot of what we hear and observe from both Democrats and Republicans suggest that they're still kind of operating under that old assumption. But the evidence actually suggests that that's not necessarily true anymore. And in fact, higher turnout seemed to actually benefit Republicans in 2020. But in any event, the key, as always, is whose voters are turning out, and almost always midterms are good for the party that doesn't control the White House. So, you know, you'd think this would be a good cycle for Republicans, and certainly a lot of things are kind of pointing in that direction, maybe most notably President Biden's relatively low approval numbers. And if you want to kind of look at one marker at the national level that you can kind of extrapolate down to all these districts across the country, you know, that might be the one

Sally Mauk Rob and Holly, it's great talking politics with you again. Let's do it again next week.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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