Montana to decide US Senate, House races, key ballot issues

HELENA (AP) — The growing popularity of early voting in Montana has resulted in fewer people casting their ballots on Election Day. But about a third of all voters participating in the midterm elections were still expected to head to their polling places Tuesday.

The top of the ticket includes elections for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and four ballot issues. There also are races for Public Service Commission, Supreme Court clerk, 125 legislative seats and a slew of judgeships.

GOING TO THE POLLS

Most polling places around the state open at 7 a.m. Tuesday. All polls close at 8 p.m. Information about polling place locations, voter information and results can be found on the Montana Secretary of State’s webpage .

U.S. SENATE

Democratic incumbent Jon Tester, who is seeking a third term in office, is in a close race after President Donald Trump visited Montana an unprecedented four times to support Republican candidate Matt Rosendale.

Tester portrays himself as an independent who will work with the president when it’s in the state’s interests and oppose him when it’s not. He also casts Rosendale, the state insurance commissioner, as an ambitious, self-interested politician who supports health care rollbacks that would deny insurance to people with pre-existing conditions.

Rosendale disputes Tester’s claims and alleges that Tester’s Senate votes have gone against the interests of Montana residents and supported Senate Democratic leaders. His primary example is Tester’s opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court nominees.

Rosendale has campaigned as a champion of the president’s agenda, with Republicans sensing an opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in the state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.

The third candidate in the race, Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, endorsed Rosendale less than a week before the election.

U.S. HOUSE

Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte is defending the state’s sole House seat, which he’s only held for 16 months after winning a special election to finish the term of Ryan Zinke, who left to become Trump’s Interior secretary.

Gianforte is up against Democrat Kathleen Williams, a former state lawmaker who is one of a record number of women running for office this year nationwide.

Gianforte, a technology entrepreneur, has campaigned on his record in office and the nation’s expanding economy.

Williams says Gianforte hasn’t done anything of note during his short time in office and that she wants to bring civility and integrity back to Congress.

Gianforte is best known nationally for pleading guilty to assaulting a reporter who was trying to ask him a question the day before last year’s special election.

The attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs re-emerged as a campaign issue in October. Trump praised Gianforte for the attack during a rally in Missoula, and Williams referenced it in an ad saying, “This is not us.”

Libertarian Elinor Swanson is the third candidate.

BALLOT MEASURES

Montana voters will decide two citizen initiatives and two legislative referendums.

One initiative would extend the state’s expanded Medicaid program, which serves about 96,000 people and is set to expire next year, and partially pay for it by raising the tobacco tax for the first time since 2005.

The other measure would set new cleanup standards on future hard-rock mines, requiring companies to submit plans that prove their mines won’t require the perpetual cleanup of polluted water after operations stop.

The initiatives are strongly opposed by the tobacco and mining industries, which have spent millions of dollars to defeat them.

One legislative referendum would extend a statewide property tax that benefits Montana colleges and universities by 10 years. The other would require that only a relative or acquaintance could deliver another person’s absentee ballot to an election office.

LEGISLATURE

Republicans have strong majorities in the state House and Senate, and Tuesday’s election isn’t expected to result in a change in party control in either chamber.

Twenty-five of 50 Senate seats and all 100 House seats are up for election. The GOP has a 59-41 majority over Democrats in the House and a 32-18 majority in the Senate.

PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION

Two seats are up for election on the commission that regulates utilities, intrastate railroads and some motor carriers.

Democrat Andy Shirtliff is challenging the commission’s chairman, Brad Johnson, for the district representing parts of central and northwestern Montana. Republican Randy Pinocci and Democrat Doug Kaercher are competing for an open seat being vacated by Commissioner Travis Kavulla, who represents central and eastern Montana.

The five members of the commission are now all Republicans.

MONTANA SUPREME COURT

Justice Beth Baker is running unopposed for a second eight-year term on the state’s highest court.

Justice Ingrid Gustafson also is unopposed as she seeks to retain a seat. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed her after Mike Wheat retired at the end of last year.

If she wins, Gustafson would serve the remainder of Wheat’s term that expires in 2023.

SUPREME COURT CLERK

The most overlooked election for statewide office is the open seat being vacated by state Supreme Court clerk Ed Smith, who served for 30 years.

The clerk’s office handles case filings and documents for the state’s highest court.

Rex Renk, who was Smith’s deputy for 23 years, is the Democratic candidate campaigning to succeed him in a six-year term.

He is up against Bowen Greenwood, a former executive director of the Montana Republican Party.

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