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Candidates vying for Montana’s two congressional districts are in the final sprint of their primary campaigns leading up to the June 7 election. 

In the Western district, five Republicans and three Democrats are jockeying to represent their respective parties on the November ballot. One Libertarian candidate is running unopposed. In the Eastern district, four Republicans, including incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale, are competing for their party’s slot on the ballot. Eastern district voters can also pick between three Democrats and three Libertarians for their parties’ respective ballots.

WESTERN DISTRICT

Republican and Democratic candidates in the Western district, encompassing Kalispell, Missoula, Butte and Bozeman, spent the last weekend before June’s primary zigzagging between towns, coffee shops, parades, rodeos and farmers markets urging voters to submit their ballots.

Democratic candidate Monica Tranel shakes voters’ hands at the Missoula Pride Parade on June 4, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Tranel campaign

“I went in for an oil change last week and they told me I needed all four tires changed as well because of the miles I put on them in the last year,” said Democrat Monica Tranel, a Missoula attorney, on Monday as she was driving to another campaign stop in Hamilton. “Our campaign showed up everywhere.”

Democrat Cora Neumann also spent the last week traversing the district, having been sidelined from in-person events in late May after contracting COVID-19. Since testing negative on Tuesday, Neumann’s campaign manager said, she attended more than a half-dozen campaign events between Hamilton and Browning before driving back to her hometown of Bozeman on Monday. In a statement, campaign manager Emma Harris said Neumann has gained strong support during her candidacy.

“Heading into the June 7th primary, we know that voters in MT-01 will support Cora Neumann for her experience as a nonprofit executive with a track record of delivering results for underserved and rural communities, improving access to health care, and protecting our public lands,” Harris said.

Democratic candidate Cora Neumann speaks at a coffee shop in Polson on June 4, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Neumann campaign

It’s unclear whether the campaigns’ shoe-leather tactics will translate to voter turnout in a primary election outside of a presidential cycle. As it stands on June 6, voters statewide have returned 41% of the absentee ballots mailed by the state. Those roughly 200,000 ballots represent 27% turnout rate so far out of the approximately 743,500 registered voters statewide. 

Blake Cilwick, campaign manager for Democrat Tom Winter, said his campaign has invested in door-knocking and phone banking in a race where other candidates have spent big on television and digital advertising. When Winter talks to voters face to face, Cilwick said, the level of political apathy is hard to ignore.

“Nobody feels like things are going well right now,” Cilwick said. Convincing voters to engage in a congressional primary is “a hard hurdle to overcome.”

 “I went in for an oil change last week and they told me I needed all four tires changed as well because of the miles I put on them in the last year.”

Democratic U.S. House candidate Monica Tranel

On the Republican side of the Western district race, candidates have also spent on in-person campaign events and advertising to draw constituents to the polls. 

Former congressman and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who announced his candidacy in early 2021, has raised nearly $3 million since entering the campaign, the most fundraised by any congressional candidate in Montana this cycle. Most of that haul has been spent — Zinke reported ending the most recent campaign finance period with $878,677 cash on hand, about a third of his total contributions. The largest sources of his expenditures, according to the most recent federal filings, have been digital, television and radio advertising. 

When it comes to turning out voters, campaign manager Heather Swift said on Monday that Zinke’s campaign team was “out-working everyone.” After doubling down on door knocking and voter calls in the last two weeks, Swift said, “Enthusiasm is high and we’re looking forward to a good day Tuesday!”

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Who holds the keys to Montana’s Western congressional seat?

The nine candidates in Montana’s new Western congressional district — a jagged ‘C’ encompassing Glacier County, Kalispell, Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley, Butte and Gallatin County — are as ideologically varied as the population they seek to represent. Which candidate can unlock House District 1’s political identity?

Zinke has released more advertising in recent days seeking to counter attack ads from Republican opponent Al Olszewski, a Kalispell orthopedic surgeon and former state senator, who has framed Zinke as a big-government politician with a spotty conservative record.

“Don’t believe the lies,” one Zinke campaign Facebook post reads. Another digital advertisement’s closing narration declares: “Al Olszewski, no one believes you.”

In an emailed statement on Monday, Olszewski campaign manager Drew Zinecker said the recent response ads from Zinke are a sign of Olszewski’s viability.

Republican congressional candidate Ryan Zinke and his wife Lolita at a Kalispell rodeo on June 3, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Zinke campaign

“Ryan Zinke refused to attend any of the five debates during the course of this race because his polling showed what everybody else’s showed: That this race will be won on the issues voters care about,” Zinecker said. “Dr. Al’s election night victory party will be at the Republican headquarters in Kalispell where he will be joined by numerous conservative candidates and supporters.”

EASTERN DISTRICT

Montana’s Eastern district — a heavily Republican and mostly rural area spanning the state’s border with the Dakotas to as far west as Lewis and Clark County — has not received the same level of spending as the more presumptively competitive Western district. 

Incumbent congressman Matt Rosendale, who currently represents the state’s at-large district, is dominating the Republican primary field in terms of money and endorsements, having raised $1.6 million.

Congressman Matt Rosendale meets with representatives from Ballard Petroleum in Billings on March 24, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Rosendale campaign

A trio of other Republicans — Billings pharmacist Kyle Austin, Bozeman resident James Boyette and Helena environmental contractor Charles Walking Child — have sought to strike a more moderate tone than Rosendale’s Trump-style conservatism. But none has posted substantial fundraising numbers, and none seems likely to overcome Rosendale’s incumbency advantage or his endorsement by the state party

Democrats in the east face an uphill climb in a district that then-President Donald Trump would have won by 27 points in 2020. 

Candidates include 24-year-old Billings resident Skylar Williams and former Billings city council member Penny Ronning. Former state lawmaker Mark Sweeney’s name will also appear on the ballot, though he died on May 6 at 62.

Ronning spent the weekend meeting with voters in Choteau, Shelby and Conrad, the final stretches of a 7,000-plus mile primary campaign across the district, the candidate said. As of May 18, Ronning had raised about $47,000, and was left with only a tenth of that on hand. 

“I don’t talk to people as if I’m going after Matt Rosendale,” she said. “It’s about how we need to get back to being a country where we work together, with neighbors talking with one another.”

Ronning said political campaigns are like a boxing match, but that voters in the Eastern district struggling with access to broadband, health care and other services want to see their elected officials collaborate and find solutions, not spar on the public stage.

Former Billings city councilwoman Penny Ronning is running as a Democrat in the eastern U.S. House district primary. Credit: Courtesy of Penny Ronning campaign

“I don’t go to just talk to Democrats,” Ronning said. “The idea that rural communities only elect Republicans just isn’t true.”

In the Libertarian Party primary, Billings attorney Sam Rankin, self-described “gadfly” Roger Roots and Missoula resident Samuel Thomas are each vying for a nomination. 

Just over half of the 79,000 voters who received absentee ballots in Yellowstone County, the district’s largest, have returned them as of Sunday evening. That works out to about 39% of registered voters in the county. 

In historically swingable Cascade County, 12,665 voters have returned absentee ballots out of 34,000 mailed, or about 37%. The county’s turnout sits at 26% so far. 

And in Lewis and Clark County, a purple area that includes deep-blue Helena, voters have returned about 13,000 of 33,600 absentee ballots mailed, or 40%. Turnout in the county now stands at 27% of all registered voters. 

One wrinkle in the Eastern district race comes in the form of Gary Buchanan, a Billings financial advisor running as an independent. Buchanan, who has held a number of positions in state government going back decades, received early endorsements from former GOP Gov. Marc Racicot and former Democratic state lawmaker Dorothy Bradley.

As he’s running without party affiliation, Buchanan does not have a primary. But he likely has enough signatures to make it onto the general election ballot. 

Voter registration closed at noon Monday. Local election officials with access to vote counting machines are permitted to begin tallying absentee ballots Monday afternoon. Polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday for in-person voting and close at 8:00 pm.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.