In the deep red eastern district, Rosendale still favorite from analysts, dollars
Four candidates running in the Montana’s newly drawn Second Congressional District.
U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale is predicted to have little trouble winning re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives, and recent developments in the race appear to only have buoyed the Republican’s bid for a second term.
In early August, Montana’s largest union backed the Independent candidate running in the state’s newly drawn eastern Congressional district, a move that wasn’t unprecedented but was out of character for an organization known for backing Democrats.
The Montana Federation of Public Employees endorsed Independent Gary Buchanan, the Iowa-born investment advisory firm founder with a long history of public service in the Treasure State.
MFPE is an affiliate of the Montana AFL-CIO, which represents 38 unions in the state, and last week, the AFL-CIO also endorsed Buchanan.
In an interview with the Daily Montanan, MFPE downplayed its endorsement of the Independent over the Democrat. But the district is red, and it’s a four-way race, with Libertarian Sam Rankin on the ballot.
Independent Buchanan might be the Democrats’ best shot at ousting Rosendale, even if it’s unlikely in the deep red eastern district, according to one political analyst.
Nonetheless, the head of the Democratic party said they’re bullish on Penny Ronning, and they’re not stepping aside. Ronning, a former city councilor from Billings, said she’s also the union candidate, and the labor endorsement of Buchanan was “a gut punch.”
“This is a guy who has worked his entire career to benefit the wealthy and corporate management,” she said.
A media representative for the Buchanan campaign did not respond to two calls for comment from the Daily Montanan before publication.
Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist who teaches at Carroll College in Helena, said that Buchanan has to do the work to sell himself to the district, but he also does not have the Democratic label, which might turn off some Republican voters.
Political forecaster FiveThirtyEight predicts a Rosendale win 99 of 100 election scenarios.
“The underlying partisan dynamics are heavily Republican in the eastern district,” Johnson said. “Strategically, it could be argued that an Independent has a better chance than a Democrat to win in this district.”
He also said the state’s largest union doesn’t endorse Democrats in every case. MFPE endorsed 26 Republican candidates for the Montana Legislature in 2020 and Republican Tim Fox for Attorney General in 2016.
Generally, Johnson said Democrats have struggled statewide in Montana for a few decades.
“It kind of requires a whole lot to go right for a Democrat,” he said.
Johnson said for Buchanan to win, the question is: Can he consolidate most of the Democratic vote behind him?
“It’s hard to win as an Independent, but it’s by no means impossible. People have done it before,” he said.
Professor of History and Political Science at Rocky Mountain College in Billings Tim Lehman said he thinks Buchanan offers voters an interesting moderate choice at a time when people see a lot of extremes.
“I think that’s the kind of choice that’s healthy for Montana and our democracy. Someone who can pull us together rather than push us apart,” Lehman said. “And I think he’s running a campaign that way and is exactly that kind of candidate.”
Johnson said with the number of candidates, four total, and the polarized political climate, there’s no good precedent for this race.
Plus, the 2022 midterms are shaping up to be less of a referendum on the Biden administration and more focused on issues, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. vs. Wade, he said.
“There’s no doubt that’s a galvanizing force for Democratic voters across the country,” Johnson said.
In interviews with the Daily Montanan and in statements, the unions defended their endorsements of Buchanan and, despite typically going with blue candidates, argued against towing party lines.
“We represent a very diverse membership, with members spanning from the hardest right to the furthest left,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis in a interview with the Daily Montanan. “Our members liked the idea of an Independent who wasn’t beholden to a party, and could perhaps bring folks from each side of the aisle into the middle to actually get something done.”
Representatives from 10 MFPE regions formed a 25-person board that interviewed candidates and ultimately decided on Buchanan, Curtis said.
When asked if there was anything in Buchanan’s record in the private sector that aligned with MFPE’s goals, like collective bargaining, Curtis said no, not that she was aware of.
“I think that we came away from our interview with him with a strong assurance that he would support working families,” Curtis said.
In statements, the Montana AFL-CIO said Buchanan “opposes ‘Right-to-Work’ legislation, believes in the power of collective bargaining to elevate local economies, and understands that speaking one on one with Montana’s work force is the only way to truly represent Eastern Montana in Washington.”
“Montanans are independent thinkers who don’t tow party or ideological lines – we just want to get things done,” said Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary James Holbrook in a news release.
In an emailed response to questions from the Daily Montanan, Chairman of Montana AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education, which made the endorsement recommendation, Quint Nyman said that Buchanan brings a depth of public and private experience that better represents Montanans in comparison to Rosendale.
“Buchanan’s grassroots and volunteer-driven campaign to run as an Independent is commendable, and demonstrates his commitment to providing voters with a clear alternative to Rosendale, regardless of their political affiliation,” he said. “Rosendale has shown that he doesn’t take the job seriously and has been historically ineffective as a voice for Montana in Washington. It’s time for someone who will advocate for Montanans for a change.”
Neither release, nor the responses, made mention of Ronning.
Ronning, Dems firm
But Ronning took note of the union decisions. She said that before the interview process even started, the AFL-CIO reached out to her to say they were already most likely going to go with Buchanan.
“I’ve always been more concerned about the union members voting for me, than I am an endorsement by their leadership,” Ronning said. “I’m for the union worker.”
Nyman said via email that no decisions on candidates are made before the committee meets to discuss the candidates.
Ronning said she was in part surprised by the endorsement because of Buchanan’s history in business, and in contrast with both him and Rosendale, she’s a non-millionaire.
Ronning, though, doesn’t agree the eastern district is more red, calling the characterization a “false narrative” and pointing to central Montana as more of a battleground in the district.
In Yellowstone County, where Ronning grew up working at her father’s diner, she earned less than 10,000 votes to Rosendale’s over 21,000 in the June primary.
Rosendale earned more votes in the primary in both Cascade and Lewis and Clark counties, two other populous counties in the district, by significant margins, and Ronning earned less than one third of the votes Rosendale did across the board. However, primary elections tend to have less voter turnout than the general election.
Ronning points to the fact that she earned more votes in comparison to Buchanan’s signatures, where she brought home nearly 22,000 votes in the second district to Buchanan’s 13,090 signatures, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Buchanan needed 8,722 signatures to get on the ballot.
Notably, a month before the primary, Democratic candidate and legislator Mark Sweeney died; His name still appeared on the June ballot, and he received just more than 8,500 votes.
Ronning outlines rights to abortion access as one of the key issues in her campaign on her website and pointed to the fact that Montana was the first state to send a woman to Congress.
“In the history of our country, the female voice has yet to even gain 50 percent representation,” she said.
None of the candidates comes close to raising anywhere near the $1.7 million Rosendale has in his war chest. But Ronning has taken in just over $63,000 in total contributions, just half of the total $127,000 Buchanan raised, including a $25,000 loan he made to himself.
Regardless, Ronning said she’s not backing down now, and Democrats in the state are sticking by their candidate.
“Penny is running a strong, grassroots campaign,” executive director for the Montana Democratic Party Sheila Hogan said in a statement. “The more Montanans she talks to, the more Montanans know that she is the right choice for the Eastern district.
“Montanans want a representative who will listen to their constituents, fight to defend their reproductive freedom, and be an advocate for Montana families – Penny Ronning is that candidate.”