Montana Public Radio

Candidates Address Montana Democrats' State Convention

Jul 16, 2019

Corrected 7/16/19 7:10 p.m.

The keynote speaker at Montana Democrats’ state convention this weekend said party is going to keep on losing if they don’t do more to convince rural voters to back them. 

Heidi Heitkamp, who won a U.S. Senate seat from North Dakota in 2012, but lost to a Republican by more than 10 points in 2018 says Democrats have ignored rural America at their own peril.

“Between 2008 and 2016, just eight short years, that first Obama election to the Trump election support for Democrats in rural america evaporated by 11 percent," Heitkamp said. 

She said without support from rural areas, Democrats will again lose the White House and Montana Democrats will be unable to defeat incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines.

Heitkamp pushed back against what she called unpassable policies some Democrats are calling for - Medicaid for all and free college education.

Heidi Heitkamp, former US Senator from North Dakota at the Montana Democrats' state convention last weekend
Credit Corin Cates-Carney

Kathleen Williams, a Democrat running for Montana’s U.S. House seat, echoed the need for a centurist message here.

“Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans, that’s what we need to win this seat," Williams said. 

Williams lost to incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte by just under five points last year, a closer magin than for many recent Democrats running for the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House.

In the past two election cycles, Montana Democrats have hung on to a couple of big offices, but failed to hold others or gain significant new ground, Governor Steve Bullock was the only Democrat to win statewide office in the last presidential election. Last year Jon Tester won a third term in the U.S. Senate by just over three percentage points.

Still, Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College says, Tester lost support in rural areas.

CORRECTION: After we published this story U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s office reached out to Montana Public Radio, calling the story inaccurate and based on an “invented premise.” 

Tester’s spokesperson called the following quote from Professor Jeremy Johnson inaccurate: “In every single country in Eastern Montana, the two-thirds eastern portion of the state, he did worse than he did in 2012,” Johnson said.

According to vote totals from the Montana Secretary of State’s office, Tester increased his win percentage in  several counties between in 2018 compared to 2012. Johnson’s quote was inaccurate and MTPR regrets the inclusion of it in the story.

Professor Jeremy Johnson says he stands by the overall thrust of his argument - that Tester’s numbers improved in the western third of Montana and he had more trouble in the east.

While Tester did improve his vote percentage in several counties in eastern Montana, less of his overall vote in 2018 came from that part of the state than it did in his previous election.

In 2012, 30 percent of Tester’s total vote came from eastern Montana. In 2018, 26.8 percent of Tester’s total vote came from eastern Montana.

Johnson acknowledged that his quote was not correct, saying the correct phrasing should have been “Tester’s performance in 2018 was worse than in 2012 in comparison to Republican Senate candidates in the eastern two-thirds of Montana.”


Johnson says Montana Democrats haven’t made specific political gaffes that have cost them the rural vote. He says it’s part of a larger trend across the country, older voters and rural voters are more often siding with Republicans.

Party members over the weekend pushed back against notions that Montana is a red state, instead referring to it as purple. 2020 will be another test for the party’s ability to convince rural voters they have something to offer.

Candidates at the convention made pledges to fight the high cost of healthcare and economic inequality, protect public lands, and fund public education.

They also stoked frustration over the party’s recent loses in statewide races, and jabbed at the Republicans holding the seats they’ll try to reclaim next year.

John Mues, just days after announcing his candidacy for the US Senate, went after incumbent Republican Steve Daines.

“He has yet to develop, evidenced by his record, a basic sense of compassion for others and lacks any record of service to country or service to community," Mues said to applause.

John Mues is running for the Montana Democratic Party's nomination for US Senate
Credit Corin Cates-Carney

Mues is the second Democrat, following Helena Major Wilmot Collins, to enter the Senate race.

Daines won his Senate seat with more than 57 percent of the vote in 2014. His run to keep it will be one Montana’s highest profile 2020 races.

Matt Rains, a veteran and rancher from Simms running to be the Democratic party’s U.S. House nominee in 2020 said, "At my core I’ve been a Montana cowboy since I was born. And seeing the Republican circus going on in Washington and how it affects Montana’s families. I knew that I had to stand up and serve again.”

Rains faces primary opponents Tom Winter, a state lawmaker, and former state lawmaker and U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams, who says she’s raised more than $400,000 since launching her campaign.

Matt Rains, a rancher from Simms, is running for the Montana Democratic Party's nomination for US House
Credit Corin Cates-Carney

Carroll College Poitical Science Professor Jeremy Johnson says Montana Republicans are feeling well positioned, as President Donald Trump remains one of the most popular political figures in Montana.

“The biggest challenge for the Democrats, how do you get around it?" Johnson said. "Well, you still have to emphasize local issues, draw a contrast with your opponents. But all other things being equal, the Democrat will be running behind.”

Johnson says Montana Democrats will have to campaign on a different message than their national party ‘, which will likely be further to the left than many voters here.