By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Montana Democrats up and down the party ticket converged in Missoula on Saturday night for the annual Williams Dinner, where talk of the coming election and the likelihood of a particular Clinton stopping in the state led the conversation.
Democrats also have their sights set on regaining the majority in the state Senate this year, taking back Montana’s lone seat in Congress, and sending Gov. Steve Bullock back for a second term in Helena.
“We do think we could get the majority in the Senate this session,” said state Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula. “I think turnout is going to be high because of the governor’s race. But we also know historically that turnout is high in a presidential year, so with someone like Hillary Clinton and likely Donald Trump, turnout will be very high.”
Montana Democrats saw a disastrous election in 2010, something they blame on low-voter turnout. It was an off-year election that saw roughly half of all registered voters show up at the polls. It also saw state Republicans gain 18 seats in the House, notching the largest victory achieved by either party in 46 years.
“The 2010 election just saw a record-low turnout,” said state Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “Unless you have the interest of both an exciting statewide and national race, most people don’t take the election as seriously as they should. But this year, because of Gov. Bullock, Hillary Clinton and Denise Juneau, we’ll have the turnout we need.”
Juneau, who has spent the last eight years serving as superintendent of public instruction, also believes the party has a strong lineup of candidates heading into this year’s election.
Juneau is running against first-term Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke in the state’s congressional race. She’s been touring Indian County to win the endorsement from tribal councils, and to ensure the state’s Native Americans are registered to vote.
“People seem be energized around the Democratic Party,” Juneau said. “They see what the other side is presenting and don’t want to go down that path. We’re not here to build a larger wall, we’re here to build a longer table and ensure all voices get included and that everyone has a seat,”
Sen. Jon Tester was also in Missoula over the weekend, where he attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Missoula Food Bank.
While the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will likely be settled before the state’s June primary, Tester said, state voters will have other choices to make.
“We need leadership that’s going to stick up for working families and small businesses, and make college affordable,” Tester said. “We’ve got a great governor in Bullock who needs to get reelected. He’s done an amazing job creating jobs and making sure the people are able to enjoy the outdoors. Juneau is incredibly connected with working families and education.”
Jeff Essmann, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, believes the state GOP has the advantage heading into election season. He said his party’s line of candidates is the strongest it has been in more than 30 years.
All but Gregg Gianforte, who’s running for governor, has run a campaign before, Essmann said.
“I believe Zinke has been a great representative for the state,” Essmann said. “He’s hard on important issues like national security and the needs of our veterans.
“Montanans understand that we need a proven job creator to pick things up in Helena to get us out of this rut were in,” he added. “What we’ve been doing has not worked in Washington or Montana. We need a change.”
Sands and Hill said Montana Democrats may see a Clinton in the state before June.
“We haven’t seen much political action by either party in the state,” said Sands. “We’ll see a major political figure in here before the primary. Maybe even Hillary.”