MISSOULA — Despite the Montana electorate’s reliably conservative political leanings, voters once again showed their independence at the ballot box on Nov. 6 when picking their representatives in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump won Montana by more than 20 points in 2016, and he made Montana’s senior senator, Democrat Jon Tester, one of his top targets during the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. Nevertheless, Tester managed to win in Tuesday’s election with a higher percentage of the vote than in either of his previous two U.S. Senate elections.
In the same election that saw voters pick Tester over conservative favorite — and Trump loyalist — Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale, voters also elected Republican Greg Gianforte to another term in the U.S. House. Gianforte, who along with Rosendale benefited from four raucous campaign rallies by the Commander-in-Chief in Big Sky Country, bested former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams in the race for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat.
Neither of Montana’s 2018 federal races ended up being particularly close — at least by the standards the 2006 election that had Jon Tester winning his first term in the U.S. Senate by a mere 0.9-percent margin.
But this year’s top races weren’t blowouts, either.
Here’s a detailed look where Tester and Gianforte achieved their Nov. 6 election victories.
Tester’s re-election win hinged in large part on his substantial margins in two counties in particular: longtime liberal stronghold Missoula, and up-and-coming blue bastion Gallatin County, home to the rapidly growing Bozeman.
Between those two counties, where a total of approximately 112,000 votes had been counted as of Nov. 8, Tester picked-up almost 33,300 more votes than Rosendale — or double Tester’s overall margin of victory.
Tester also performed well in Montana’s other consistently left-leaning urban areas, Butte and Helena, while picking up a net of 1,900 votes in the swing county of Cascade, home of Great Falls. Tester did poorly in northwest Montana, losing Lincoln, Sanders, and Flathead counties by a combined 12,000 votes, but made up some of that difference in reservation counties such as Glacier and Big Horn.
Tester’s win came despite an unprecedented four campaign stops in the state by President Donald Trump aimed at boosting Rosendale’s candidacy. Rosendale also benefited from visits by Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump, Jr., and a host of former FOX News personalities.
Despite these outside efforts on behalf of Rosendale, Tester won handily in three of the four cities where Trump made appearances: Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls. And Tester out-performed Trump’s 2016 presidential opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in every single county in the state.
For example, Trump crushed Clinton in Billings — winning by a nearly 19,000-vote margin in Yellowstone County in 2016. But Tester lost Yellowstone County by just 2,500 votes out of the nearly 66,000 votes cast.
In each of Tester’s three U.S. Senate campaigns — his narrow 2006 victory over then-incumbent Conrad Burns, his defeat of Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg in 2012 and this year’s race — Missoula County has remained his most reliable stronghold.
Tester has also won progressively more votes in fast-growing Gallatin County — which he actually lost in 2006 but won by 4,400 votes in 2012 and by 11,000 votes this time around.
2018 also marks the first race in which Tester won more than 50 percent of the statewide vote, a contrast to the 2006 and 2012 elections in which he won 49.2 and 48.6 percent of the votes, respectively. In those previous elections, some conservatives argue the Libertarian candidate served as a spoiler, siphoning votes from the Republican on the ballot.
In contrast to Tester, Congressman Greg Gianforte’s path to victory revolved around Flathead and Yellowstone counties, where the Republican beat Williams by a combined 17,832 votes. Gianforte also performed well in rural areas, picking up almost 2,300 votes in Richland County, around Sidney, and 3,800 votes in Lincoln County, the Libby region.
One consolation for Williams: Like Tester, Williams won Gallatin County, where both she and Gianforte make their home.
John S. Adams contributed to this report.