Cora Neumann
Cora Neumann of Bozeman became the latest candidate to enter the race for Montana's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Neumann campaign.

HELENA — Two more candidates have jumped into the race for Montana’s new second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the last week, bringing the total number of declared Republican and Democratic hopefuls to five.

Public health expert and nonprofit executive Cora Neumann declared her candidacy on Tuesday, the most recent in a thickening field of politicians vying for one of the state’s two seats in Congress. Monica Tranel, a former Olympic rower and attorney for the Public Service Commission, entered the contest Wednesday. 

Montana’s growing population garnered an additional House seat following the results of the 2020 census. While the contours of the two districts have not yet been finalized, candidates have said that the new seat will make campaigning easier, allowing contestants to focus on voters in smaller swaths of the state.

“This is going to be half of the state, so it’s a different seat,” Neumann said, adding that the election of a Democrat could allow more balanced representation of Montana in Washington D.C. after nearly 25 years of Republicans holding Montana’s sole seat. 

“We do have a really strong history of ticket splitting and being a purple state. … I feel hopeful about the seat and about our ability to win and send another voice, an additional voice, to Washington.”

Democratic candidate for congress Cora Neumann

“We do have a really strong history of ticket-splitting and being a purple state,” she said. “I feel hopeful about the seat and about our ability to win and send another voice, an additional voice, to Washington.”

Neumann grew up in Bozeman and moved back full-time in 2019 after working on public health initiatives across the U.S. and internationally. She said she intends to focus her campaign on economic development and health care needs in Montana. Those priorities were also central to her 2020 primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, which Neumann suspended after former Gov. Steve Bullock entered the race against Republican incumbent Steve Daines.

“When families can’t even cover their medical expenses because they don’t have the wages that they need to cover those expenses, or they’re being pushed out of their houses because they can’t afford it, it’s just at the core of what worries Montana families every day,” Neumann said. “If we don’t address that, if people are facing having to leave their homes because of low wages or high housing prices, you have to start there. That’s at the heart of what we need to address.”

Neumann is the latest Democrat to enter the race following Tranel’s announcement last week. State representative Laurie Bishop of Livingston announced her campaign in early July.

Any one of those candidates would become Montana’s second U.S. congresswoman ever, following Jeannette Rankin’s election to a second term in 1940.

Democrat Monica Tranel entered the contest for a seat representiing Montana in Congress on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Tranel campaign

In June, former U.S. Representative and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke became the first Republican to announce his bid for the new House seat, re-entering politics after resigning from  the Trump administration under a cloud of scandals. Al Olzsewski, a former state legislator from Kalispell, launched his campaign earlier this month, touting himself as a long-time Montana political figure and a staunch conservative. U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, Montana’s sole congressman, is expected to run for reelection in 2022, but has not yet begun a formal campaign.

Democrats have failed to win Montana’s at-large congressional seat since long-serving Rep. Pat Williams retired in 1997, soon after Montana lost its second House seat based on the results of the 1990 census. With the prospect of a new seat splitting what is currently the geographically largest congressional district in the Lower 48 states, Bishop, Tranel and Nuemann have each framed themselves as Democrats who can win over a sizable chunk of Montana voters. 

“Democrats have always been the party of people who work for a living, the middle class, the working class. We’ve not changed that, but I don’t think we’ve been connecting with people who work for a living in a good way.”

Democratic candidate for Congress Monica Tranel

Tranel, who lost her 2020 race for a seat on the Public Service Commission, is campaigning on her history of advocating for consumers who are up against powerful corporations, including NorthWestern Energy.

“Democrats have always been the party of people who work for a living, the middle class, the working class,” Tranel said in a Monday phone interview. “We’ve not changed that, but I don’t think we’ve been connecting with people who work for a living in a good way. And I think we need to really do a better job of connecting with those people.”

Tranel earned a law degree from Rutgers University and moved back to Montana in the early 2000s. She grew up in a large ranching family that moved between Miles City, Ashland and Golden Valley County. Now a resident of Missoula, she said her experiences in rural Montana are key to understanding the issues facing the electorate.

“I’ve tried cases from Beaverhead to Phillips County. I’ve done water rights with ranchers across the state. And I’ve worked with conservation districts and written rules for the [Department of Natural Resources and Conservation],” Tranel said. “I know Montana. It’s my home. I’m here, I love it, and I’m fighting for it.”

Until the lines of the House districts are finalized by the state’s independent districting commission, it’s unclear which candidates will run for each seat. The commission’s five members have met monthly since May, building on prior meetings in 2020, working toward final maps for next year’s election. 

Last week, the commission voted on some criteria for establishing new congressional district lines. The group plans to meet again in late July.

This story was updated July 14, 2021 to correct an error: Montana’s U.S. House District as of 2021 is the geographically largest House district in the Lower 48 states. Alaska’s is bigger.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.