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Montana Democrats rally at the 2022 Mansfield Metcalf dinner

(Daily Montanan) The wheels of campaign politics are turning in Montana, with matchups now set in 100 state House seats, 36 state Senate seats and a pair of Congressional races, not to mention contested seats on the Public Service Commission and state Supreme Court.

That the season had arrived was evidenced by dueling banquet fundraisers for the state Democratic and Republican parties in late winter, an opportunity to rally the troops, pass the hat around, drink and gossip from the sidelines as various party acolytes speak. Republicans held theirs in February at a Helena hotel, where speakers pledged to continue the so-called “red wave” that captured every statewide office and boosted GOP margins in the Legislature. And in March, it was the embattled Montana Democratic Party’s turn.

The Mansfield Metcalf Dinner, named for former U.S. Senators Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf — and only somewhat ironically referred to as the “Democratic Prom” — is the party’s annual gathering, a white tablecloth affair that this year took place in the lofty convention space at the Lewis and Clark County fairgrounds, illuminated with bright lights and big video displays.

With a cash bar, catered dinner and lilting cocktail jazz, there was no shortage of revelry, but the event’s tone still reflected the bruising impact of the 2020 elections on the Democratic psyche in the state and the tall task the party has before it in the coming year, not to mention the consequences its members say will occur if Montana voters continue to trend rightward in November.

“We’ve had a year of Republicans controlling everything from the governor to statewide offices to the Legislature, and of course our land board,” proclaimed Sheila Hogan, the party’s executive director, during her speech at the dinner. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had about enough. We have a lot at stake. I know that everyone always says this is the most important election of your lifetime. Here’s the thing — they aren’t wrong.”

It remains to be seen how well the mechanics of power-building in state government become elements of campaign rhetoric. But from the outset, Democratic messaging has largely centered on the big picture in the state Legislature, where Republicans are two seats in either chamber shy of a bicameral supermajority, enough to propose constitutional amendments to the voters without needing votes from the minority.

That prospect could have implications for perennial flashpoints like land access, taxation and abortion, access to the latter of which is protected in Montana with the state constitution’s broad privacy protection.

“If they get the votes, they’ll undo it,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the only Democrat left in the state who won their last statewide race, in his speech.

Any constitutional amendment or measure to call a constitutional convention would need to be approved by voters, something that Montana Senate President Pro Tempore Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, emphasized in a Montana Free Press article last week, adding that there “is no active plan in any way, shape or form to rewrite the Constitution.”

Still, Democratic leaders have adopted that frame in their broader electoral approach this year.

“Our constitution, a remarkably forward-thinking document, is turning 50 this year,” Hogan said. “And I’ll be damned if we’ll let the Republicans take it without a fight. We are flipping seats, defending incumbents. We’re knocking doors in every corner of the state, we are building a phenomenal team of well-trained trained candidates to take on these Republicans and fight for Montana values.”

The current GOP margin in the state House is 67-33, with 31-19 in the Senate. Democrats didn’t field candidates in 27 state House districts and six Senate districts — a harbinger of things to come, or a reflection of targeted investment in winnable races, depending on your strategic perspective.

“The thing I want to remind you about is we know how to win,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, to raucous applause. “We know we’re gonna have to work for every vote. Every single one is important.We need to be on the doors, on the phones, in cafes, in the bars — that’s where I shine. It’s gonna take all of you, it’s gonna take your hours and dollars, and your energy starting tonight through the Election Day.”

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The 2020 Census got Montana its second congressional seat back, and the dinner also served as the first real opportunity to compare candidates in two contested Congressional primaries. Each had a few minutes to speak, with most of the attention going to those running in the western district, which still tilts several points towards the GOP but presents at least some possibility of a win for an over-performing Democratic candidate.

In that district, nonprofit executive Cora Neumann, former PSC attorney Monica Tranel and former state legislator Tom Winter are jostling for the nomination. On the other side, former congressman and Trump cabinet official Ryan Zinke has earned an endorsement from the former president and holds a massive fundraising lead over his primary opponents, former state Sen. Al Olszewski and Kalispell pastor Mary Todd.

“This new congressional season, we get our chance to send someone to Washington committed to ensure that the growth in Montana benefits Montanans,” said Neumann in her speech. “Someone who knows the struggle that rural families face trying to find the healthcare they need, someone who understands how painful it is to be priced out of your hometown, someone who loves public lands…and someone who is a lifelong Democrat, but who works with Democrats and Republicans alike to get things  done for rural families.”

The three Democratic candidates have largely avoided running directly one against each other, but their brief addresses at the dinner showed some early drafts of efforts to go on the offensive — Tranel was a Republican in the early 2000s, working as a staffer for GOP U.S. Senator Conrad Burns and running under the party’s banner for PSC in 2004. She ran again for the commission as a Democrat in 2020.

The speeches themselves seemed designed to show contrast. Neumann was staid, speaking from behind a lectern. Tranel, meanwhile, bounded out on stage, grabbed the microphone from the stand and paced and gesticulated as she spoke.

“We will win by telling the Montana Democrats’ story of standing up to corporate greed and delivering for our communities,” said Tranel, who presents herself as a populist attorney who’s taken on corporations like Northwestern Energy.

She emphasized that Montana is her “only home” — part of Neumann’s bio, on the other hand, is that she grew up in Bozeman but had to leave the state because her step-father couldn’t find work — and that over 80 percent of her campaign contributions have come from Montanans. Indeed, in Neumann’s case, more than half of her donations before January of 2022 came from California.

Tom Winter, who defeated a Republican incumbent in the state Legislature in 2018 but left after one term to run for Congress, said in his speech that he’s a populist who can cut across party lines with a message of economic justice.

In the heavily Republican eastern district, the Democratic nominee may have an insurmountable task in taking out incumbent Congressman Matt Rosendale. Current Philipsburg-area state Sen. Mark Sweeney is running, as are Billings City Council member Penny Ronning and Billings resident Skylar Williams.

Ronning and Williams both spoke. Sweeney had an existing family engagement and didn’t come.