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Ticket Splitters: Montanans Send Tester, Gianforte Back To Washington

Someone drops a ballot into a box to vote in this stock photo.
Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio

During the mid-term election, Montana voters re-elected their incumbents – a Democrat and  a Republican - for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, respectively. Political scientist David Parker was asked to look at his proverbial “tea leaves” to explain the outcome.

First, Parker said Montanans aren’t afraid to vote a split ticket.

“You had Montanans going to the polls voting for Jon Tester and then turning around and voting overwhelmingly for Greg Gianforte,” he said. “So there’s a willingness I think to look at the person.”

So let’s break that down. First, a look the U.S. Senate race. Unofficial returns show Tester beat Republican challenger Matt Rosendale by a 50-to-47% margin.

Parker said some of that is due to the fact Montanans know and generally like Tester.

“Even I think people who didn’t necessarily like him, liked him more than Matt Rosendale. And that’s important reason I think Jon Tester survived the nationalization of the races because at the end of the day, people like him,” said Parker, a political scientist from Montana State University and the chief political analyst for the Montana Television Network.

He said a key demographic to Tester’s win was that he garnered a lot of support from people between the ages of 18-to-29.

Parker said another explanation for Montanans propensity to be ticket splitters has to do with the Democratic and Republican party stances on the issues, be it health care or immigration .

“There are some places where I think Montanans think Democrats do a better job on issue important to them and other areas where Republicans do a better job on issues important to them and they split their votes accordingly,” he said.

Now over to Montana’s lone U.S. House seat featuring incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte and Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams.  Libertarian Elinor Swanson was also on the ballot.

Parker said despite the loss, Williams did well at the polls Tuesday.

A hurdle she faced, he pointed out, was coming out of the contested June primary with relatively no money in her campaign coffers or other resources. That’s a disadvantage because she couldn’t define or defend herself against the barrage of television ads that painted her as a left wing liberal.

Williams actually outpaced Gianforte in campaign contributions toward the end of the campaign, but it may have been too late.

Parker pointed to the pre-election MSU-MTN poll which predicted Williams getting about 40% of the vote. Unofficial returns show Gianforte bested Williams 51-to-46%.

“So certainly, a number of voters that were undecided did end up moving to her,” he said. “And I wonder if the race had gone on for another couple weeks if she had might not be able to pull off the upset.”

And be part of the national blue wave that swept a record number of women into office.

Parker is looking to the MSU-MTN survey that’s going out in the mail to voters now to get more insight to better understand Tuesday’s election.