All three Democrats running in the primary for Montana’s newly created western U.S. House district say someone from their party has a good chance of winning the seat — and each thinks their background makes them the most likely to be able to pull it off.
Montana gained enough residents in the 2020 census to add the district, which was drawn with a more blue tint than the deep-red eastern seat. But even within the new boundary, whichever Democrat emerges from the June 7 vote will face an uphill battle.
The counties in the district favored Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Joe Biden by about 7 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election compared to Trump’s statewide margin of more than 16 points, making the west more competitive than the rest of the state for a Democrat.
Four years ago the last Democrat to win a statewide election in Montana, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, did better in the district than he did statewide, getting 52% of the vote to his opponent Matt Rosendale’s 45%.
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In Democrat Kathleen William’s loss to Republican Greg Gianforte the same election for what was then Montana’s lone seat in the House, she carried the counties in the district 50% to 47% while a third-party candidate pulled nearly 3%.
But two years later, she lost to Rosendale 52% to 47%, in an election between just the two candidates. Libertarian John Lamb is running in this year’s race.
While all the Democrats in the primary say they’re best suited to pick up undecided or crossover voters, the candidates highlight their varied experience when trying to convince voters they’re the strongest choice to run in the general election.
Neumann, 47, is a nonprofit executive from Bozeman. Most of her career has focused on public health, which included starting an organization called We Are Montana during the pandemic to work on increasing access to health care.
Neumann points to her life experience in saying that her past makes her well-suited to understand the issues facing residents in the district and represent them in Congress.
Neumann was born in Canada and moved to Bozeman as an infant after her dad died in a lumber mill accident. When the recession hit in the 80s, her family couldn’t find jobs and had to leave town to live with her stepdad’s sister out of state until they got on their feet again, she said.
“We had to leave … for work elsewhere because of economic challenges, which so many families are facing here now. To have a firsthand understanding of that struggle, to bring that to Washington, I think is really, really important right now,” Neumann said. “I feel like that real, direct, personal understanding of what Montanans are facing, that especially needs to be in Washington.”
Neumann moved back to Bozeman in 2019 and ran briefly in the U.S. Senate primary in 2020. Her opponents have criticized her time spent out of state, saying she moved back to seek office. That’s something they also ding the expected Republican primary victor, Ryan Zinke, with.
Neumann counters that her roots are in Montana and that her geographically broad career across the country and world makes her a stronger candidate.
“I can hit the ground running in D.C. because I have worked nationally,” she said. “Also because it’s far away and it’s in D.C., it’s even more important to have someone in DC who really understands what Montana families go through and especially what they’re going through right now.”
Neumann’s campaign aims to tap into a concern about the ways Montana is changing. She said people in the district and across the state are struggling with “feeling that Montana is being bought up from underneath us.”
“There’s a lot of pain in our state right now with this growth. … My goal is to make sure that the growth in Montana benefits Montana, and that’s it, bottom line,” Neumann said. “Because the growth is happening. There is no reason our communities, our business leaders, our unions, our institutions should not be thriving. Because somebody’s going to thrive. It should be us.”
Being able to work with Republicans is important to winning the district and serving in the House, she said.
“Politics are not the most important thing. And they’re not at the forefront of our minds in Montana. I think that perspective is really needed in Washington,” she said, adding that her work during the pandemic illustrates her crossing of party lines.
“I worked with (former Democratic) Gov. Bullock and I also worked on (Republican) Gov. Gianforte’s vaccine task force,” Neumann said. “Even at the peak of when it was the most political and most difficult, I was able to get Republican county commissioners to step out and work with me, even when it was politically risky for them to do so. You find the thing you share and then you just focus on that.”
Having spent her career focused on public health, Neumann said that would be a main focus of hers if elected. In addition to seeking ways to increase access to care, retain medical workers and allow the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices, she said health is something also found outside hospitals and clinics, and that lack of affordable housing was also a major issue facing families. She pointed to existing federal programs that could alleviate part of the problem.
“Public health is access to good jobs (and) having services you can afford, which includes energy. For me, it’s about representing and making sure that Montana families have what they need to be healthy and to thrive,” Neumann said.
Tranel, 56, is a lawyer from Missoula who has focused on energy issues. Voters might remember her name from the 2020 ballot when she ran unsuccessfully for the Public Service Commission. Tranel previously worked as a staff attorney for the PSC and spent a brief time in D.C. working in the office of Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican. She also spent much of the 1990s as a world-champion rower who competed in the Olympics.
Tranel spent her youth growing up across eastern Montana and nearly all of her professional career has been in the state. That longevity in Montana is a major emphasis in her campaign.
“This is my home. It’s my only home. I don’t have another one. This is where I’ve been living, working and practicing law for 25 years,” Tranel said, adding all three of her daughters were born in the district. “I think I’ve had a client or a case in every one of the 16 counties that makes up this district.”
Working as a lawyer in the boundaries of the new seat, Tranel said, has helped her understand the problems facing its residents. She sees a lot of the work to be done as a representative in the U.S. House not in bringing legislation, but in helping connect people in her district to services or money the government makes available.
During a meeting with people in Sanders County, Tranel said she was asked about insufficient resources for seniors. She said federal funding allocated to the state to address the issue has not yet been spent, and if elected she’d want to dig into those sorts of situations.
“I think being a congressional representative is so much more than legislation. Legislation is obviously what people think of first, but it’s really about constituent services,” Tranel said. “(So it’s about) leadership, and how can I be a voice for Montana and for rural Democrats?”
When it comes to the lack of housing options within the budget of Montanans, Tranel said that’s another place she wants to be a voice in Congress when it comes to problems facing the state.
“Like affordable housing, you can hold hearings. You can have town hall meetings. We can show up and ask questions and get publicity, which is so necessary to shine a light on things that are happening,” Tranel said. “That’s what I want to do. That’s what needs to happen. People need to understand what’s happening for their communities.”
Tranel didn’t shy away from the challenges a Democrat faces running in a rural state like Montana, but said that experiences growing up and working here will help her overcome.
“I think the Democratic brand has become kind of toxic as a result of what has been portrayed in the media and the press … The conversations I’ve had with folks when I go up and talk to them is, ‘Oh, you’re running as a Democrat? you must be a socialist.’”
That’s when, Tranel said, she falls back to her childhood.
“I say I went to kindergarten in Miles City. I played basketball in Glendive. I think it’s really just about being who you are, being the person who has been here.”
While her opponents have taken issue with her having run as a Republican for the PSC in the past in addition to her 2020 race as a Democrat, Tranel dismissed party labels and said it’s more a matter of who voters think they can trust.
“Most people are in the middle, and what I’m hearing over and over and over again is people are sick of the dehumanization, they’re sick of the ‘othering’ and what they really want is people who can figure out a way to develop solutions and work together,” Tranel said.
She pointed to her 2020 PSC race, where Tranel picked up votes from Republicans like the mayor of Troy, who she said voted for her.
“There’s no path to victory without getting crossover and independent votes. This is not a get-out-the-vote state. It’s just not. We have to have persuasion votes, we have to have independent votes to win,” Tranel said.
Winter, 35, is a Missoula resident and former state lawmaker who previously ran for the U.S. House in 2020, losing to Williams in the primary. In the Legislature he carried bills looking at ways to reduce property tax burdens, relieve student loan debt, allow online voter registration and legalize recreational marijuana. Winter now works to expand broadband access into rural communities around the state.
Winter has focused his campaign on where he believes the government is falling short of what it should be doing and says if elected, he’d be a voice for Montanans.
“What do you think you deserve from our government? Certainly not the loss of wages for 40 years. Certainly not the inability to afford a home. Certainly not a climate in crisis,” Winter said. “We are here to give you what we know you deserve. That is a seat at the table in Congress, and that is a voice for the concerns of everyday Montanans like yourselves.”
Throughout his campaign, Winter has cited his past experience of winning a race in a district that voted for Trump by 11 points in 2016 and was previously held by a Republican legislator as evidence he’s already been a successful candidate and can flip people who have voted the GOP ticket before, something likely necessary to win the district.
“We were able to get in front of people and re-knit our community back together after what had happened to us in the Trump years. We were able to bring people back to sanity and to concern for our community and do it through progressive Democratic politics,” Winter said.
His time in the state Legislature has equipped him to serve in Congress, Winter said.
“When I was in the Legislature, having asked people what do you think you deserve from your community, I went about trying to bring that into law,” he said.
When it comes to health care policy, Winter said he’s the only candidate in the race, on either side of the aisle, who is calling for universal health care.
“I am just not going to beat around the busy anymore or waste voters’ time,” Winter said. “If we continue to beat around the bush on it, more people will die.”
Given his political stances, Winter still said that his policies aren’t too progressive to appeal to voters in the general election in November.
“What I am advocating for on behalf of our communities is not radical,” Winter said at a recent forum in Missoula. “ …. The country is with the things I am saying. I might be seen as the most liberal person on here, (but) I’m the only one who’s won an election whatsoever. I won an election of Trump Republicans on these values, because these are Montana values.”
When it comes to policies that would fulfill what he envisions for Montana, Winter said the Build Back Better plan, President Joe Biden’s social spending and climate change legislation that stalled out in Congress, is a ready-built bill that could bring dramatic change.
“It would transform the lives of Montanans for the better and write the wrongs of a lot of things that have happened the last 40 years,” Winter said. “ … There’s so much that can assist Montanans. The language is already written.”
Winter also identified unaffordable housing as one of the largest issues facing the state.
“It’s not tenable to have our largest cities still near the federal minimum wage and have houses near a million as the median sales price,” Winter said. “The cost of housing has nationalized in the state of Montana, but our incomes have not.”
As a whole, Winter sees his campaign as a way to bring a voice to issues he says aren’t getting enough attention.
“Do you feel that in your old age you deserve teeth? Do you feel that as a young working person and a family that your children should have a place to go while you work?” Winter said. “Do you feel that your family and you should be protected from climate change? Usually the answer is ‘yes,’ the response is the same, that I agree with these things that we’re fighting for.”