HELENA – What at first seemed like a sleeper of an off-year election in 2014 – compared to Montana’s 2012 barnburner races – appears likely to be another lively one.
Montana has open U.S. Senate and U.S House seats up for election this year. In addition, local voters will elect their state legislators from newly drawn districts.
Candidates begin filing this Thursday with Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office. The filing ends March 10.
“We’re gearing up for another busy election season,” McCulloch said. “We’re ready, candidates are ready and everyone’s looking forward to opening day.”
The executive directors of the two major state political parties in Montana are both upbeat about their respective party’s electoral chances, but for different reasons.
“I’ve said many times before, it’s not about one candidate or another,” Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party said. “Polls show Republicans leading the Senate race because the people of Montana want more jobs and less government.
“Republican policies work. When we develop our natural resources, that’s good-paying jobs for Montana families. That’s what Republican candidates stand for. That’s why Republicans are going to win.”
Andrea Marcoccio, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said: “I’m really optimistic. Our priority is putting responsible leadership back in, up and down the ticket.
“You know Montanans are independently minded. They will reject the rhetoric that shut down Congress. We know they will want to send people to Congress who solve problems, not get into partisan fights.”
Topping the ballot is the U.S. Senate seat left open after Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said last April he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, was gearing up to run for the Baucus seat, but abandoned his plans in mid-July.
After some other statewide Democratic elected officials kicked the tires but declined to run, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, a Democrat from Helena, entered the race. Walsh picked up the endorsements of Sens. Jon Tester and Baucus and Gov. Steve Bullock.
Other Democrats in the race are former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger of Helena, who served eight years with Schweitzer, and Dirk Adams, a Wilsall rancher.
On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines of Bozeman, first elected to Congress in 2012, is the strong frontrunner. As of Sept. 30, Daines had raised more than $1.3 million, including leftover money from his 2012 House race.
Other Republicans in the Senate race are state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula and David Leaser of Kalispell.
President Barack Obama, however, added another wrinkle to the Montana race late last month, when he said he’ll nominate Baucus to be the next U.S. ambassador to China.
That means Baucus will resign his seat, after Senate confirmation as ambassador, and Bullock would appoint someone to fill out the remaining year of Baucus’ term. Walsh has said he will seek the interim appointment.
Daines’ decision to run for U.S. Senate made Montana’s only U.S. House seat an open race, for the second election cycle in a row. Daines won the open seat in 2012, when then-incumbent Republican Denny Rehberg unsuccessfully challenged Tester in Montana’s U.S. Senate race.
Four Republicans already have announced to run for the House seat this year, and Rehberg said last week he has not ruled out running for the House seat he held for a dozen years.
Announced Republicans are state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings, Drew Turiano of Helena and former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish.
Two other Republicans, state Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings and former Secretary of State Brad Johnson of East Helena, have said they planned to enter the House race after the holidays, although Johnson also is looking at the Public Service Commission.
John Lewis of Helena, a former top aide to Baucus, is unopposed so far in the Democratic primary for Congress.
The battle for control of the Legislature should be one of the most intriguing electoral stories in Montana this year, as Democrats try to narrow or erase their minorities in both the House and Senate.
The legislative electoral landscape also has a wild card this year: All candidates are running in newly drawn districts, adjusted every 10 years in Montana to reflect population shifts. All 100 House seats are up for election in 2014, as well as half of the 50 Senate seats.
Republicans currently hold a 29-21 edge in the Montana Senate and a 61-39 majority in the House.
Democrats could narrow the gap in the House by a few seats, although most observers believe Republicans will easily maintain their majority there.
In the state Senate, however, Democrats may have a better chance at shifting political control in their favor.
Democrats must defend only nine Senate seats this year, while the GOP has 16 of its seats up for election – and, because of redistricting, two of those GOP-held districts are open seats in Havre and Helena that Democrats believe they have a good chance of winning.
Three other Republican-held seats in Great Falls, Bozeman and Billings also are possible swing races, but two Democrat-held seats in Missoula and Great Falls are open seats that could go either way as well.
Voters also will elect two justices on the seven-member Montana Supreme Court this year.
Justice Jim Rice, a former Republican state representative who’s been on the court since 2001, already is a candidate for re-election.
Justice Mike Wheat, a former Democratic state senator who’s been a justice since 2010, has not said whether he will run again. Wheat intends to announce his decision this week.
Montana’s five-member Public Service Commission, which regulates electric, gas, telephone and water utilities, has two seats up for election this year, both of which are currently held by Republicans.
Commissioner Bill Gallagher of Helena, who has pancreatic cancer, announced last week he won’t run for re-election in northwest Montana’s District 5, creating an open seat in a district that stretches from Helena to Kalispell and Polson.
Democratic state Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh of Helena and former state Rep. Derek Skees, a Whitefish Republican, say they’re running for Gallagher’s seat.
In PSC District 1, which includes Great Falls and 19 counties in north and northeast Montana, Commissioner Travis Kavulla of Great Falls is running for re-election. No challenger has surfaced yet.
Even if Republicans lose these two swing districts, they’d still hold a 3-2 majority on the commission.