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HELENA — Montana voters will choose the winners in state and local primary elections Tuesday in races including a tough intraparty Republican battle for the nomination for the U.S. House.

The primary also features preliminary rounds of a much-anticipated fall U.S. Senate race likely to pit Sen. John Walsh against Rep. Steve Daines.

Voter turnout likely will be low.

Primary election turnouts in Montana are usually a fraction of those in the general election.

What’s more, in off-year primaries — those in which candidates for president and governor aren’t on the ballot — voter turnout usually tails off even more. Over the past 16 years, off-year primary turnout has ranged from a low of 26.8 percent in 1998 to a high of 34.3 percent in 2006.

“It will be less than the general, but we’re hoping for a good turnout,” said Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, the state’s chief election officer.

A record number of 198,020 Montanans have requested absentee ballots for the primary, as of Friday, she said. Fifty-three percent of the ballots have been returned to county election offices, with lots more likely on Monday and Tuesday, she said.

“So we’re not worried yet,” McCulloch said.

The most hotly contested race so far has been for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House.

The nomination is shaping up to be a three-way fight between state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings and former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish. Also running are state Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings and Drew Turiano of Helena.

Zinke led the pack in fundraising through mid-May, collecting slightly more money than Rosendale, who has dropped $1 million in personal loans into his campaign coffers.

In recent weeks, Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, has been taking plenty of criticism from rivals and some former Republican chairmen. They contend his conservative positions in this campaign are at variance with his moderate voting record in the Senate.

The House Democratic primary pits John Lewis, a former top aide to Sen. Max Baucus, against perennial candidate John Driscoll, a former public service commissioner and legislator. Both are from Helena.

Lewis is expected to win, having campaigned since the fall and raised far more money than Driscoll, a surprise entry in the race who is refusing to take donations in the primary. Six years ago, however, Driscoll, again not taking contributions, pulled off a major upset to win the Democratic House primary against a much better-funded opponent who also had the backing of the Democratic establishment.

Libertarian Mike Fellows of Missoula also will be on the November ballot for the House.

The other high-profile race in Montana this year is for the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Walsh — a race that features contested primaries Tuesday for both Republicans and Democrats.

However, Walsh and Republican Daines are definite favorites in their respective primaries on Tuesday, competing against lesser-known or underfunded candidates.

Walsh, appointed to the post Feb. 7 to succeed Democrat Max Baucus after the latter was appointed U.S. ambassador to China, faces two challengers in Tuesday’s Democratic primary: Former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger of Helena and Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams.

Daines has competition in the Republican primary from state Rep. Champ Edmunds and University of Montana department assistant Susan Cundiff, both of Missoula. Libertarian Roger Roots of Billings also is in the race, but has no contested primary, and will be on the November ballot.

Perhaps the most intriguing primary election contests on Tuesday, besides the Republican U.S. House race, are the more than two-dozen legislative primaries featuring competing factions of the Republican Party.

So-called “responsible Republicans,” who joined Democrats to pass the state budget and a major school-funding bill during the 2013 Legislature, are battling harder-line conservatives in GOP legislative primaries all across the state.

The results of these races will influence the composition of the 2015 Legislature, for in many of them, the winner of the GOP primary is the state Senate or House district’s likely next legislator, because the district leans heavily Republican.

Voters in western Montana’s Public Service Commission District 5, which includes Helena, Kalispell and Polson, also have a contested primary Tuesday on the Republican side, among Kalispell truck driver John Campbell, former Secretary of State Brad Johnson of East Helena and former state Rep. Derek Skees of Whitefish.

The winner will take on state Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, this fall, to succeed retiring Commissioner Bill Gallagher, R-Helena.


Managing editor at The Billings Gazette.