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There may be no candidate who knows better than Jon Tester the importance of high voter turnout in a nonpresidential election.

In 2006, the Democratic U.S. senator from Montana upset Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, who had in previous elections dispatched Democratic challengers easily. Tester wasn’t a sure bet. In a political race that was tighter than most expected, higher-than-average turnout for a midterm election pulled the farmer from Big Sandy across the finish line first.

Tester was in Billings on Friday trying to coax another high turnout miracle from the Magic City Democrats, this time for House candidate John Lewis and Senate candidate Amanda Curtis.

“I want you to go down to the courthouse and vote for your next senator, Amanda Curtis,” Tester told a crowd of roughly 80 Democrats gathered at the Billings Education Association. “I want you to go down to the courthouse and vote for the next U.S. congressman from the great state of Montana, John Lewis.”

Turnout is important at any polling place, but Yellowstone County ballots, anchored by Billings voters, comprise one-seventh of the state vote.

Win or lose the county, the finish here has to at least be tight for underdogs, which limited nonpresidential election-year polling would indicate both Curtis and Lewis are. A Montana State University-Billings poll issued Oct. 17 showed strong leads for Republicans Steve Daines in the Senate and Ryan Zinke in the House.

Both Daines and Zinke launched their campaign weeks in Billings then stormed the state urging voters to buck the low turnout trend of midterm elections. Friday, they worked the north-central and northwestern parts of the state. The two cross paths Saturday morning in Hamilton.

On Friday, Lewis and Curtis stopped in Lame Deer, Crow Agency, Billings, Livingston and Bozeman, accompanied by Tester and Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat.

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“We got to have a 60 percent turnout in this race, 60 percent,” Lewis said. “When Jon Tester ran in 2006 and won, we all worked so hard, it was 63 percent turnout in that election, an off-year presidential. In 2010, 56 percent turnout. We have got to do better than that, and we’re going to do better than that.”

The 2010 election was a dog for Democrats nationally, but it was particularly bad for Montana Democrats running for the state Legislature. Republicans picked up 18 state House seats to outnumber Democratic lawmakers better than two to one. The GOP also improved its control of the state Senate.

Curtis is the long shot candidate of Montana’s 2014 election. She was appointed by her party in August to replace Sen. John Walsh after he withdrew in the middle of a plagiarism scandal involving a college research paper. Short on time and money, Curtis needs tremendous turnout by Democratic voters.

“We have done this before, and if Montanans want to send one of us to the United States Senate then they can go the ballot box on Tuesday and get it,” Curtis told the crowd. “But, it’s going to take the all of us to send the two of us to Washington, D.C.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.