Mountain Region Roundup

Montana Senate Race Could Help Decide Control of Chamber

Posted November 11, 2011 at 7:45am



Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

2012 Electoral Votes: 9
2008 Presidential Vote:
Obama 54%/McCain 45%


The contentious Colorado redistricting process is currently in the courts. The new lines are anyone’s guess at this point, but Democrats and Republicans have proposed maps in consideration.

There are expected to be at least two, possibly three, closely watched House races. The 3rd district would be a major Democratic target in a nonredistricting year, but the map uncertainty is keeping some of that optimism in check.

The 3rd is represented by freshman Rep. Scott Tipton (R). Tipton beat Rep. John Salazar (D) by a narrow margin in the 2010 GOP wave. Both Republicans and Democrats have stated that part of the reason Salazar lost, and Tipton won, was a lack of preparation on Salazar’s part.

This cycle, Democrats have recruited state House Minority Leader Sal Pace, who ended September with a little more than $200,000 in the bank. Unless major changes are made to the demographics of this district, this will likely be a top race to watch next year.

GOP freshman Rep. Cory Gardner in the 4th is also on Democratic target lists. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) narrowly carried the current district in the 2008 presidential race, but both parties view Gardner as an agile and charming candidate.

The parties share a similar respect for his likely opponent in the general, state Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D). National Republicans say he is the strongest opponent Democrats could have recruited for the district — but they say he is not strong enough to defeat Gardner. The freshman Republican is a top fundraiser, and he will not lack funding down the stretch.

The other district to watch is that of Rep. Mike Coffman (R). Coffman has easily won his two previous races in the 6th district with more than 60 percent of the vote, but redistricting could put him in trouble. Democrats are hopeful that if a new map makes this district competitive, state Rep. Joe Miklosi (D) will run and can win the seat. But the new lines will reveal how realistic that actually is.


Gov. Butch Otter (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 4
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 62%/Obama 36%


1st district | Incumbent: Raul Labrador (R)

2nd term (51 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

The only Democrat to win a House seat in Idaho in nearly 20 years was Walt Minnick, a former assistant in the Nixon administration and Republican until 1996.

Labrador’s 10-point victory last cycle over the freshman Minnick should not have been surprising. This is one of the most conservative districts in the country, and even the independent Minnick stood no chance of withstanding a tide that netted Republicans 63 seats last cycle.

Labrador has one Democratic challenger so far: retired NFL wide receiver Jimmy

Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D)

2012 Electoral Votes: 3
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 50%/Obama 47%


Incumbent: Jon Tester (D)

1st term (49 percent) | Outlook: Tossup

Along with Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota, this is one of the top four pickup opportunities for Republicans and could help decide control of the Senate.

That reality makes this race a prime candidate for heavy outside spending by the campaign committees and other third-party groups.

Tester is being challenged by the top Republican in the state, Rep. Denny Rehberg, and his ability to separate himself from President Barack Obama and national Democrats will likely determine the race’s outcome. Tester has done that so far and turned in strong fundraising quarters. Tester had more than $3.1 million in cash on hand at the end of September to $1.8 million for Rehberg, who entered the race in February.

In a race between two Members of Congress, both campaigns have focused on the other’s legislative actions, including bill sponsorship and votes on issues ranging from border security to swipe fees to who should receive credit for giving the state control of its wolf population management.

A local-issue battle is one the Tester campaign would welcome in a state that’s given a Democratic presidential nominee its electoral votes just twice since 1948, and with Obama’s nationwide approval rating hovering in the low 40s. Plus, as the at-large Member, Rehberg has already proved to be a statewide winner with high name recognition.

This race has the potential to get nasty. With relatively cheap media markets, no competition at the presidential level and polling expected to be close throughout, the outside spending will flow in here and likely erase Tester’s fundraising edge.


At-large | Open seat: Denny Rehberg (R) is running for Senate

Outlook: Likely Republican

With more than $500,000 in the bank already, businessman Steve Daines is favored to hold this statewide district for Republicans.

But with Rehberg running for Senate, Democrats see a sliver of sunlight here and have several candidates in the mix: state Rep. Franke Wilmer, state Senate Minority Whip Kim Gillan, Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier and lawyer Rob Stutz.

Daines, the 2008 lieutenant governor nominee, initially ran for Senate. He announced his campaign shortly after the 2010 elections, then switched to the House race in February when Rehberg announced his Senate campaign.


Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 6
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 63%/Obama 34%


Incumbent: Orrin Hatch (R)

6th term (62 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

Hatch needs to make it out of the state Republican convention in April to ensure he wins a seventh term in one of the most conservative states in the country. But he’s still without a formidable opponent, and with five months to go Hatch looks more likely to win re-election than ever.

He entered the 2012 cycle among the most vulnerable incumbents thanks to last year’s GOP convention loss by then-Sen. Bob Bennett and a voting record that’s motivated conservative groups that don’t like him.

But since the start of the year, Hatch has made a point of spotlighting his record while raising money at a record pace and doing the groundwork necessary to compete at the convention.

His top potential opponent was Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), who, after months of hinting he would challenge Hatch, announced in August he was instead running for re-election. Then in late October, Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in the state with any chance of winning statewide, announced that he also would not run for Senate.

Conservative outside groups were disheartened by Chaffetz’s decision but continued to search for a candidate to put forward. One name that continues to float is tea party leader David Kirkham.

The state’s nominating process is in the groups’ favor, as 3,500 locally elected delegates — generally more conservative than the statewide GOP electorate — get to decide the nominee.

Hatch’s campaign plans to help supporters get elected in the March 15 caucuses and oust those likely to oppose the incumbent a month later at the convention. Team Hatch is recruiting supporters to attend the caucuses and vote for delegates who would be friendly to his nomination.

The nomination can be won with 60 percent of the convention vote. Otherwise, the top two finishers face off in a primary. Either way, a Republican will be representing the state in 2013.


2nd district | Incumbent: Jim Matheson (D)

6th term (51 percent) | Outlook: Tossup

Matheson hasn’t said which district he’s running in or even what office he’s seeking next year.

He announced in late October only that he would not run for Senate but made no mention of a potential gubernatorial bid. Even with the state gaining a district in reapportionment, a Matheson statewide bid would make it far more difficult for Democrats to hold even one House seat.

If he runs for re-election, Matheson’s best options are running in the 2nd district, which is where he lives and includes about one-third of his current constituents, or the new 4th district.

The 2nd district, which includes most of Salt Lake City and the state’s western border, voted 58 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 and 66 percent for President George W. Bush in 2004. The 4th district voted 56 percent for McCain and 66 percent for Bush.

But Matheson has always had a tough district, and he even won in the Republican wave year of 2010. Republicans lining up to challenge him include 2010 GOP nominee Morgan Philpot, conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar, state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom and a handful of others, though some could also opt to run in the 4th.

4th district | New seat

Outlook: Safe Republican

The race ratings for the 2nd and 4th districts would likely flip if Rep. Jim Matheson (D) opts to run here.

No other Democrats have announced for the new territory, while several Republicans are either running or considering the race. They include state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, who could also run in the 2nd, retired professional football player Jason Buck, state Rep. Carl Wimmer and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who is the daughter of Haitian immigrants and the first female mayor in Utah.

The 4th follows Interstate 15 south from Salt Lake City and includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Gov. Matt Mead (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 3
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 65%/Obama 33%


Incumbent: John Barrasso (R)

1st term (73 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

Barrasso, who was appointed in June 2007 and then elected in November 2008 to the fill the remaining four years of the late Sen. Craig Thomas’ term, should be easily re-elected.


At-large | Incumbent: Cynthia Lummis (R)

2nd term (70 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

Lummis’ first race in 2008 was somewhat competitive and she won with just 53 percent of the vote, a lackluster total given the state’s staunchly conservative bend.

But last cycle, Lummis cruised to re-election by a much more comfortable margin. That’s a trend that should continue, barring her grabbing any unwanted headlines or attention.

Lummis is a safe bet to win a third term next year regardless of whom Democrats nominate as their sacrificial lamb.