Sizing Up the Montana Senate Race

Sizing Up the Montana Senate Race
Bethany Baker/The Billings Gazette via AP
Sizing Up the Montana Senate Race
Bethany Baker/The Billings Gazette via AP
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Every state has its unique quirks. You can’t really understand the political dynamic in Ohio, for example, without understanding the vagaries of European immigration and the state’s rail networks.  But some states are simply weird, in ways that defy easy categorization.

Maine, for example, has a heavily populist and quirky streak, as exemplified by its swing from a state President Obama carried by 15 percentage points in 2012 to a state that Hillary Clinton carried by just three points.  West Virginia voted for Donald Trump by over 40 points, but Democrats still maintain a healthy vitality down ballot.

Montana fits into this category of “strange” states.  At the presidential level, it is blood red.  Voters backed Trump by 20 points in 2016, and Mitt Romney by 14 points in 2012.  Yet beneath the presidential level, the politics of the state are significantly murkier.  Montana has sent only a handful of Republicans to the Senate since popular elections were adopted. It routinely elects Democratic governors. 

Even at the presidential level, the state can be unpredictable.  John McCain only won there by two points in 2008. Silver Bow County, in the mountainous west, has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1956, while Deer Lodge, just to its northwest, last voted Republican in 1924 (it favored Calvin Coolidge over Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette by 19 votes that year).

The senior senator from Montana, Jon Tester, is a man uniquely well suited to take advantage of the state’s quirky nature.  A farmer with a flat-top haircut and who lost three fingers on his left hand in a meat grinder accident, Tester’s populist streak fits well with the electorate.

His Republican opponent is state Auditor Matt Rosendale.  The race was quiet for most of the cycle, and perhaps for good reason. In 2012, for his first re-election bid, Tester faced a formidable test in U.S. Rep. (and former Lt. Gov.) Denny Rehberg. While Romney was carrying the state handily, Rehberg lost by four points to Tester (a libertarian took 6.6 percent of the vote).

Given that Tester has another term under his belt, a weaker opponent (though still a capable one) and the national environment is worse for Republicans than 2012, many analysts started this race off with Tester as a favorite.  Recent polls, however, have showed a much closer contest. In July, Remington Research, a Republican pollster, showed a three-point race.  CBS/YouGov then showed a two-point race, while Gravis showed a four-point race.  Tester currently leads by three points in the RCP Average.  

The National Republican Senatorial Committee also released polling showing a tied race.  While campaign polls should always be taken with a grain of salt, the NRSC is deciding at this point in the cycle where it should concentrate resources and where to abandon ship.  It would be unlikely to release this poll if the race were not close, because it would not want donors expending resources here otherwise.

The bottom line is that this is still a state that Donald Trump won handily, and where the president’s national unpopularity is less of a drag. At the same time, Tester has cut a more liberal profile in Washington over the past few cycles, even helping to bring down one of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.  At the same time, Tester is at 48 percent in the RCP Average, and the state does have a history of giving substantial vote shares to third parties (meaning Tester can probably win with 47 or 48 percent of the vote).  This is probably not a top-tier opportunity for Republicans right now, but it has developed into a race that is very much worth keeping an eye on.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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