Steve Daines, Michael Daines

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., left, and his son Michael Daines watch election results on a big screen at a party in honor Daines' primary run. The Republican primary for the open U.S. Senate seat was a three-way race among Rep. Steve Daines of Bozeman, Susan Cundiff of Missoula and State Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula. (AP Photo/Janie Osborne)

HELENA – Nearly 57,000 more Montanans cast their ballots in the Republican primary election Tuesday than in the Democratic one.

What are we to make of that?

Does it show an enthusiasm gap for Democrats, which could be a harbinger of a poor showing in the November election?

Does it simply reflect greater interest in the more hotly contested Republican races for the U.S. House won by Ryan Zinke and the legislative battles between the “responsible Republicans” and the more conservative Republicans?

In the U.S. Senate race, 132,327 Montanans cast their votes in the three-way Republican primary won by Rep. Steve Daines. Only 75,556 voted in the three-way Democratic primary won by Sen. John Walsh.

“There’s no question that a whole lot of Republicans voted this year,” said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. “It’s going to be a good year for us.”

Republicans stand to benefit from the same trend this year that Democrats did nationally in 2006, Greenwood said.

In the third two-year cycle of a two-term president’s tenure, the party out of power is much more invigorated than the president’s party, he said. Democrats nationally reaped the benefits in 2006 against President George W. Bush, and now Republicans, many analysts think, are poised do the same against President Barack Obama.

Greenwood also acknowledged that state Republicans had “a very hotly contested primary.”

He also attributed some of his party’s turnout advantage to the Daines being “a very popular figure.”

Andrea Marcoccio, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, sees it differently.

“Primary turnout is driven by competitive races, and the Republican ballot had controversial candidates facing closer match-ups for their statewide and local races,” she said. “Meanwhile, voters rallied behind our nominees for the Senate, House and state offices, and that enthusiasm will continue to build as we head into November.”

Democrats already have knocked on an historic number of doors and made an historic number of phone calls in Montana, she said.

“That hard work, energy and grass-roots support will drive us through to Election Day, where we expect wins for Senator John Walsh, House candidate John Lewis and Democratic legislative candidates throughout Montana,” she said

David Parker, a political science professor from Montana State University, doesn’t support the notion that Democrats suffered from an enthusiasm gap here last Tuesday.

“My cautionary take is it’s very simple,” he said. “There was more information and were more competitive primaries on the Republican side. That leads to more interest on that side of the ballot.”

Where does that leave Democrats in the fall?

“They have to be concerned about national trends, which show Republicans can get their base out in mid-term elections,” Parker said.

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Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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