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Montana Democrats hustle for a spot in the U.S. House


Montana will elect two representatives to the U.S. House for the first time in 30 years. A Democrat hasn't won a House seat in the state since 1994, and in one of the races, three Democrats are running against a prominent Trump-backed Republican. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar has more.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Montana was one of six states that gained representation in Congress after the 2020 census recorded 95,000 new residents here. Ron Jarmin, then acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau, announced those results in April of last year.


RON JARMIN: Texas will gain two seats, and Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon will each gain one seat.

RAGAR: Montana is the only state in U.S. history to gain back a seat it lost. Christina Barsky, a professor and elections expert at the University of Montana, says this election will be a test of whether this once purple state is now red.

CHRISTINA BARSKY: So now we'll have the opportunity to sort of see if, in this election, we have different representation.

RAGAR: Not only has Montana not elected a Democrat to the U.S. House since 1994, the state has also not sent a woman to Congress since Jeannette Rankin was reelected after being the first woman to serve - ever - on Capitol Hill. This election, Barsky says...

BARSKY: I think it's still up in the air.

RAGAR: The state's eastern House district is seen as a safe Republican seat. Cook Political Report rates the state's western district race as politically competitive, but likely Republican. There are three Democrats, two of whom are women, competing for their party's nomination in the western district.

BARSKY: I think that there's a great interest from Democrats - people that vote Democratic in the state - to see greater representation in terms of electing a person from their party to Congress.

RAGAR: Last year, the Democrats on the state's independent districting commission saw an opportunity to draw the new political boundaries in a way that would make them competitive. But the race also includes a big-name Republican.



RAGAR: Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and four other Republicans are vying for the seat.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Zinke helped Trump build the border wall on federal lands despite opposition. He kept fentanyl and meth out of Montana communities.

RAGAR: Zinke is the presumed front-runner on the Republican side, who has far outraised his opponents. He's also had this job before, from 2015 to 2017. After about two years in former President Donald Trump's administration, he resigned in early 2019 amid several investigations into complaints against him. The agency found later that he failed to comply with ethics obligations of his position. Zinke called it a political hit job.


DONALD TRUMP: Ryan has my complete and total endorsement.

RAGAR: Zinke is leaning on his relationship with Trump. The two held a 10-minute tele-rally over the phone last month.


TRUMP: With his help and with everybody's help, this country will be turned around.

RAGAR: Zinke has called Trump, in multiple interviews, a kingmaker.


RYAN ZINKE: I'm a believer in President Trump and the policies, and we can get back to where America needs to be.

RAGAR: So far, Trump has a winning record for his endorsees, but there have also been losses in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Idaho for Trump-backed Republicans. The Democrats running in the western district are Cora Neumann, a public health expert, Tom Winter, a former state lawmaker who works in broadband, and Monica Tranel, a longtime Montana energy attorney. The three often talk about why they think they're the best person to take on Zinke. Montanans will decide tomorrow who moves on to the general election and if Trump is still a kingmaker in Montana. For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.