HELENA-In less than two weeks, Montana candidates will start filing for office in a political landscape that’s bound to shift as 2018 unfolds – and a key player may be someone’s who not on the ballot.
That someone is President Donald Trump, who Montana by 20 points in the 2016 election, but whose approval rating currently stands among the lowest of any modern president at this point in his first term.
Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, says Trump has fired up the opposition, and that the party is having no trouble recruiting candidates to run for all level of offices, from U.S. House down to the state Legislature.
“It’s amazing the number of people that want to run, and all really quality candidates coming from those local communities,” she says. “I feel a lot of optimism in a very difficult time right now.”
Yet Republican Party officials in Montana aren’t backing away from the president at all, and say they’ll be emphasizing who’s supporting the president and who’s not – and that latter category includes, first and foremost, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
“Our main task right now is showing Montanans who Tester really is,” says Debra Lamm, chair of the Montana Republican Party. “Because he says one thing, but when he gets into (Washington) D.C., he does something else.”
The re-election effort of Tester, seen by many as a vulnerable Democrat in a Trump-friendly state, will top the ticket in Montana – although it may not live up to its billing as a top national race.
“It’s definitely a top-10 race in the country; I don’t think it’s a top-three race,” says David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. “I think there are other Democrats who are a little bit more vulnerable.”
Close behind that contest in importance will be Montana’s U.S. House race, with freshman Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte running for a second term.
Already, six Democrats have said they plan to compete for the nomination to take on Gianforte in 2018 – the same number of Republicans currently lined up for a chance to challenge Tester in the Senate race.
Primary voters from each party will choose their candidate on June 5.
Tester hasn’t been shy about opposing Trump on many key issues, such as the Republicans’ big tax-cut bill that passed in late December and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”
But Tester also touts that he’s had 10 bills signed into law by the president, many of which are intended improvements to health care for veterans.
Gianforte, so far, has been a loyal Republican soldier supporting the Trump agenda.
Parker also says a big “X-factor” in 2018’s political wars is the national and state economy. If they do well, Democrats may face some headwinds, despite an unpopular president, he says.
Besides the federal races, Montana voters also will choose whether to re-elect two Supreme Court justices, decide two seats on the five-member Public Service Commission, and determine 125 legislative seats.
Republicans hold a 32-18 majority in the state Senate and a 59-41 advantage in the state House and are favored to maintain those majorities.
Keenan thinks Democrats could be in a good position to gain seats, especially if Trump’s popularity doesn’t improve – but Lamm says she thinks the GOP could stand to build on its already solid majorities.
“We’re excited; people are excited,” she says. “We hear from voters every day. We’re organizing our field teams and looking forward to the race coming up.”