Republicans go into 2024 holding all statewide offices, with the exception of Tester’s Senate seat, both Congressional seats, a 5-0 majority on the Public Service Commission, and strong legislative majorities. The GOP will be trying to oust the last major Montana Democrat in Senator Jon Tester while maintaining control of the offices they already hold. Democrats will be trying to interrupt their losing streak and show they can still flex some muscle in the state.
The US Senate race is going to be the big one in Montana next year. Jon Tester is running for a 4th term and is the last Democrat standing in Montana. Republicans are motivated to capture the seat, but their nominee is somewhat up the air.
Tim Sheehy, a military veteran and successful businessman, has jumped into the race and has the backing of Gianforte and Daines. Sheehy fits the Gianforte mold of a rich out of stater who moved to Gallatin County. This type of individual can certainly find success in Montana politics, but the downsides are numerous as Sheehy is virtually unknown and would have to spend considerable resources (which he has) to get name ID. Congressman Matt Rosendale also appears set to run and may be favorite for the nomination due to his name ID and relationships with the grassroots.
Daines is head of the NRSC this cycle and it will be interesting to see if he can deliver his preferred nominee and beat Tester. If Sheehy becomes a Senator, the Daines-Gianforte hold on Montana politics will be cemented, but if Rosendale wins the primary it would be seen as a setback to Daines and result in some awkwardness.
Ryan Zinke appears content to seek reelection. He may get a challenge from the right, and perhaps a rematch from former State Senator Al Olszewski.
Democrats lack much of a bench. Monica Tranel could try for a rematch. Someone who has previously sought higher office, like Kim Dudik, could try as well, or I could see someone like Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers giving it a shot.
With Rosendale likely to vacate the seat to run for Senate, a large field is expected to emerge on the GOP side. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is expected to run, as is State Auditor Troy Downing, Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci, and State Senate President Pro Tem Ken Bogner. Each of these candidates have their own strengths and weaknesses; Arntzen has won statewide twice, has name ID, and hails from Billings, the largest city in the state; Downing is yet another transplant living in Gallatin County who has access to money and has won statewide, but actually lives in the State’s other Congressional district. Pinocci is a fantastic retail campaigner, but might be too far right and is associated with the scandal-plagued PSC; Bogner has credibility with the right, having been Al Olszewski’s Lieutenant Governor in his failed Governor race, and has had some high-profile wins in the Senate, but would need to show he can raise the money necessary to run a credible race.
There are also several other Republicans that could jump in and be credible contenders, such as former judge Russ Fagg, Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund, and State Representative Bill Mercer.
Kevin Hamm has announced his candidacy on the Democrat side, and I could see him drawing a primary opponent such as termed-out State Representative Lorie Bishop who briefly ran for Congress last year.
Greg Gianforte is very likely to run for reelection and will face a primary from conservative State Rep. Tanner Smith. Smith will run to Gianforte’s right, but I doubt he’ll get enough traction to threaten the sitting Governor in a primary.
Democrats will be facing an uphill climb to unseat an incumbent in a red state in a presidential year. I could see a holdover Senator or termed-out Representative running. Someone like Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, or House Minority Leader Kim Abbott. For a longshot, I could see Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath, a former Democrat Attorney General, giving it a run.
Republican incumbent Austin Knudsen is pretty popular among Republicans for his hard-ball style. He should be seen as a rising star, and maybe the frontrunner for Governor in 2028, so Democrats should be motivated to weaken him now.
Raef Graybill and former Rep. Kim Dudik ran as Democrats in 2020, with Graybill advancing to the general only to be shellacked in the state GOP sweep. Both could run again, as could any number of Democrat attorneys in the state legislature.
Secretary of State:
Republican Christy Jacobsen won with the largest margin of any partisan statewide candidate in 2020. However, I could also see her as the likeliest to face a tough primary race due to the election integrity debates within the GOP. State Senator Theresa Manzella would be a legit threat to Jacobson, but seems more likely to focus on her reelection. Former State Rep. Brad Tschida could also run, as could an activist more directly affiliated with the election integrity movement, such as Darin Gaub.
Democrats don’t have many obvious candidates here. Former State Senator Bryce Bennett was their nominee in 2020, but he has since resigned his Senate seat and moved out of state. Perhaps former Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rena Moore or an Election Administrator like Bradley Seaman from Missoula County will run.
Republican Troy Downing seams too ambitious to stay in this office. I expect he will seek another seat, likely US House. Some Republican names that have surfaced in rumors are Sen. Jeremy Trebas and Rep. Ed Buttrey, both from Great Falls. Sen Shane Morigeau was the Democrat nominee in 2020 and could run again.
Superintendent of Public Instruction:
Republican Elsie Arntzen is term-limited, so this is an open seat. This is usually a prime target for Democrats, and Arntzen won her two terms by fairly small margins against two-time Democrat nominee and now State Rep. Melissa Romano.
State Senator Shannon O’Brien has filed for the Democrats while Sharyl Allen has filed as a Republican.
State Supreme Court:
There are two open Supreme Court seats up this cycle, as Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Justice Dirk Sandefur have announced they will not seek reelection. Expect these to be hard fought, expensive races, as the Supreme Court has acted the Democrats last buffer against a GOP-controlled legislature and executive. This can be a touchy subject, as the judicial branch certainly sees itself as non-partisan. However, with Democrat-aligned groups filing numerous lawsuits against Republican bills and Republican lawmakers publicly feuding with the Supreme Court, it certainly feels like these will be very partisan races.
So far, Jeremiah Lynch has filed for the Chief Justice position and Dan Wilson has filed for the other opening. While candidates do not run with party labels in these seat, Lynch appears to be more aligned with Democrat groups and Wilson aligns with Republican-leaning groups.
Expect more candidates to enter these races. Lt. Governor Kristin Juras and PSC Commissioner James Brown previously ran as conservatives for the Supreme Court and either could do so again if they pass on seeking reelection. Several former Democrat statewide candidates could jump in as well, such as Raef Graybill, or even former Governor Steve Bullock.