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Montana Primary Held Few Surprises But Leads To High Profile Races

Rachel Cramer
A sign in Gallatin County points voters to ballot drop off locations June 2, 2020

Montana’s first all mail-in ballot primary election didn’t provide many surprises last night. But it did produce several high profile general election races.

Montana State University political scientist Eric Raile says candidates with name recognition and large bank accounts performed as well as expected. There weren’t many upsets.

“It pretty much followed the script,” Raile said.

Democratic voters nominated Lieutenant Gov. Mike Cooney to keep their hold on the governor’s office, while U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte will try to regain Republican control for the first time in 16 years.

Raile says Gianforte’s high profile could be a liability, as voters can scrutinize his Congressional record and guilty plea for assaulting a reporter in 2017. Raile says Cooney might likewise be judged on decisions made by Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration over the last eight years.

“So if people aren’t happy with those decisions in the general election, they might stick,” Raile said.

Raile says the novel coronavirus will likely be front and center during general campaigns, including the so-called Battle of the Steves for one of Montana’s U.S. Senate seats. He says Bullock, a Democrat, likely benefits from public exposure as Montana responds to the pandemic.

Yet many Republicans have also criticized Bullock’s stay at home order and its economic effects. Meanwhile, Democrats question incumbent Sen. Steve Daines’ critique of China’s handling of the virus, in line with other national Republican figures, despite his close work with the country in the past.

Daines, Gianforte and Republican U.S. House nominee Matt Rosendale have each played up their relationship with President Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Candidates often center their messages before a general election to appeal to more voters, but Raile says the political playbook has been thrown out the window since Trump won in 2016. He says Trump campaigned for his base at the expense of appealing to moderate voters.

“Following his example, by hitching your wagon to Trump you’re kind of adopting a similar strategy,” Raile said.

With thin partisan margins in the U.S. House and Senate, Raile anticipates heaps of outside money flowing to Montana’s federal races. Bullock has raised nearly $6 million in total primary and general funds, while Daines has collected more than $9 million.

More than $70 million was spent during Montana’s 2016 Senate contest between Jon Tester and Rosendale for the most expensive race in state history.