Montana voters went to the polls Tuesday to pick a challenger to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester after an expensive primary election campaign marked by attack ads, big spending by outside groups and President Donald Trump inserting himself in the race.
Voters also were deciding on a Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte nearly a year after the Republican was sworn in to fill the term of Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become Trump's Interior secretary.
Voter interest appeared to be higher this year than in other recent primaries when there was no presidential election. The rate of absentee ballot returns suggests voter turnout may be at least a few percentage points higher than in the 2014 and 2010 elections, when just a third of all registered voters turned out.
The Senate campaign has turned negative in recent weeks, indicating the four-way race may be a close one. State Auditor Matt Rosendale declared himself the front-runner early, but in a sign that lead may not be as comfortable as it once was, a pro-Rosendale group has spent $1.2 million attacking two other candidates, retired judge Russ Fagg and businessman Troy Downing.
Fagg, who's campaigned on his deep Montana roots and connections, went negative first with an ad questioning whether Rosendale would be easy on criminals who are in the country illegally. Downing has kept his focus on attacking Tester, while the fourth candidate, state Sen. Al Olszewski, has largely stayed out of the fray.
Outside groups have spent about $5 million on the Senate race so far. Besides going after his opponents, pro-Rosendale groups also have spent nearly $2 million more on ads backing their candidate.
Also included in that total are outside organizations that started buying anti-Tester ads after Trump said in April that Tester would pay for sinking his nominee for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Ronny Jackson.
Tester, who is seeking his third term, is one of 10 Senate Democrats facing election in states won by Trump in 2016. Tester has said that outside spending would have come whether or not Trump had made his comment that he "will have a big price to pay" after releasing allegations that Jackson drank on the job and distributed prescription medication.
Some political analysts say Trump's remarks may actually help Tester by galvanizing Democrats to turn out for a non-presidential election when turnout is typically lower.
Besides the Republican primary winner, Tester may also face Green Party and Libertarian challengers in November's general election. The Green Party, which could take votes that would otherwise go toward Democratic voters, is holding its own Senate primary election between Steve Kelly and Tim Adams.
The Montana Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to disqualify the Green Party from the ballot, but a ruling in the case won't happen until after the primary election.
The Democrats' five-way House race between Grant Kier, Billings attorney John Heenan, former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams and Bozeman attorneys Jared Pettinato and John Meyer, has gotten less attention than the Senate race. As a result, there are a lot more undecided voters, according to campaign officials.
The Democratic nominee will attempt to win a seat that has been held by Republicans since 1997. Gianforte won the seat last year in a special election best known for Gianforte's attack of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.
Gianforte eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, and the attack figures to be a major theme in this year's general election. All of the Democratic contenders have said the assault and Gianforte's initial comments that Jacobs was the instigator show that Gianforte doesn't have the character or temperament for the office he holds.
They also accuse Gianforte of being aloof to his constituents by rejecting open-forum town halls in favor of scripted appearances, and of towing Trump's and the GOP's agenda even when it's to the detriment of Montana.
Gianforte backers like the National Republican Congressional Committee say Gianforte puts the interests of his constituents at the forefront of every issue.
Gianforte previously lost the 2016 gubernatorial election to incumbent Steve Bullock, who was the only Democrat to win a statewide election that year. That defeat in an election that saw Trump win by 20 percentage points makes Democrats believe that Gianforte is vulnerable.
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