BUTTE — Conventional wisdom says 2014 looks like a rough political year for Democrats in Montana, but party stalwarts see a bright spot beckoning: Their chances for making gains this election at the state Legislature, particularly the state Senate.
Republicans control a 29-21 majority in the Montana Senate, but Democrats believe they have a legitimate shot to take at least four seats from Republicans this year, forging a tie that would hand them the crucial leadership reins in the Senate. In a tied legislative body, the party holding the governor’s office — Democrats — would get to name the body’s leadership.
“In the competitive seats in the state, we have the best candidates running … candidates that people know and trust,” says Lauren Caldwell, head of the Democrats’ Legislative Campaign Committee.
The four Senate districts primarily in play are in Helena, Bozeman, Great Falls and north-central Montana, including Havre.
Most of these races are essentially are open seats in newly drawn districts, although in each one, the Democratic candidate is well-known to local voters.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Montana Republicans are going to roll over, or concede that they’re going to lose anything.
The GOP has controlled the Legislature for most of the past 20 years and believes the politics of the day favor them, offering a prime opportunity to not only hold their advantage, but widen it.
“The people of Montana want a change from Obama’s policies, and a Republican vote is the way to accomplish that,” says Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the state Republican Party. “Our message of more jobs and less government is a popular one, and it should lead to a Republican wave in the November election.”
The GOP Senate seats in play include:
Senate District 42, which encompasses the Capitol neighborhood of Helena and the town of East Helena. Former state Rep. Jill Cohenour of East Helena is probably the favorite in this newly drawn Democratic-leaning district, against Republican Joe Dooling, a Helena farmer/rancher and project manager for an engineering firm.
SD32, which includes portions of central Bozeman but stretches from Gallatin Gateway down to West Yellowstone. Former congressional candidate and state Rep. Franke Wilmer, a Montana State political science professor, is the Democrat running for this open seat and is better-known than Republican Jedediah Hinkle of Bozeman.
SD14, which includes Havre and a broad swath of rural north-central Montana and stretches all the way to the outskirts of Great Falls. Democratic state Sen. Greg Jergeson, who lost his old seat because of redistricting, is running to claim this new, open district. But he faces another known quantity for voters, Republican Rep. Kris Hansen, a two-term incumbent in her old Havre district.
SD11, currently held by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls. Democrat Vonnie Brown, a Great Falls social worker, polled well during the primary election last week, and is expected to provide a stiff challenge to Buttrey.
The main Democratic Senate seat Republicans hope they can win this year is in SD24 in central Billings, where Democratic state Rep. Mary McNally is competing against Republican Tonya Shellnut.
Incumbent Kendall Van Dyk, who won a narrow victory here in 2010, is not running for re-election, and McNally was just appointed last week to take Van Dyk’s place on the ballot.
Wilmer said Saturday she feels good about her race in SD32 and that the GOP strategy of tying Obama to Democrats in legislative races doesn’t worry her.
“Obama is not running in my district,” she said. “I think I have a record of working across the aisle. People are very hungry on the doors to hear about people who get along well with the other side. I don’t think (the race) is just about Washington.”
Caldwell agreed, saying Republicans offer a lot of rhetoric, while Democratic candidates listen to voters and “take solutions made in Montana to the Legislature.”
She also said the Democratic field of candidates more closely reflects the diversity of the population: About 60 of them are women, while Republicans have only 16 women legislative candidates.