Downing, Driscoll, Gianforte, and Busse come away with primary victories

Last minute voters fill desks at Exhibition Hall in Great Falls during Tuesday's primary election
Last minute voters fill desks at Exhibition Hall in Great Falls during Tuesday's primary election

With less than an hour to go before polls closed in Montana a steady stream of Cascade County voters strode in and out of Exhibition Hall in Great Falls, casting ballots, filling them out, and registering to vote. At 41%, turnout for a primary election during a Presidential election year was lower than average, perhaps because the candidates for President, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, were decided long before Montanans had an opportunity to cast their votes.

Likewise, the race to determine party candidates for the U.S. Senate held little drama. Third term Montana Senator Jon Tester won 97% of the Democratic vote, while retired Navy Seal Tim Sheehy, who has the endorsement of former President Trump, handily beat out former Montana secretary of state Brad Johnson by a four to one margin.

However, further down-ticket contests proved to be more competitive. Below is an overview of seven of the most significant races.

U.S. House District 2 (Republican)

This is just the second election cycle since redistricting brought a second congressional district to Montana east of the continental divide. Current Republican incumbent Matt Rosendale opted out of running to hold the House district after failing to receive Donald Trump’s endorsement for a Senate bid. That opened things up for a slate of nine Republican candidates.

Montana State Auditor Troy Downing was ultimately the victor, garnering 36% of total votes cast. Downing got a big last-minute boost one day before the primary when he received Donald Trump’s endorsement. His closest rival, Denny Rehberg who received 17% of the vote, had previously served six terms as Montana’s sole House Representative, but failed to convince voters – or Trump – that Downing was not sufficiently supportive of the former President. Third place Republican candidate Stacy Zinn, a retired special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, received 14% of all votes cast.

U.S. House District 2 (Democrat)

Four candidates cast their hat in the ring to represent Montana Democrats in the race for House District 2. Each would have to face the challenge of election to an office that has not been held by a Democrat in 28 years. That formable task will fall to John Driscoll, a former state legislator and Montana National Guard Officer who has expressed concern over U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza and the cost of healthcare for Montanans.

Driscoll came away with 34% of the vote on Tuesday, followed by Powder River County rancher and businessman Steve Held with 26%, and retired pharmaceutical representative Ming Cabrera with 21%

A sign welcomes Cascade County voters to cast their ballots at Exhibition Hall during Tuesday's primary election
A sign welcomes Cascade County voters to cast their ballots at Exhibition Hall during Tuesday's primary election

Montana Governor (Republican)

Republican Greg Gianforte seems to be well on his way toward tallying his second term as Governor of Montana with 75% of all Republican votes cast. Gianforte has gained favor for amassing a $2.5 billion budget surplus then redistributing it to taxpayers, imposing more stringent statewide abortion restrictions, cutting income and business taxes, and drawing national attention to a statewide ban on the TikTok app.

If there is any surprise at all its that his opponent in the primary was able to grab a quarter of all votes cast on a hardline conservative platform that takes issue with increases to the daily salary paid to lawmakers, state compensation to people wrongfully convicted of violating the law, and the reallocation of marijuana tax revenues to pay for county road maintenance.

Republican candidate Tanner Smith campaigned on a platform to crack down on crime and drug trafficking, to reduce homeowner property taxes and to expand oil, gas, and timber resource production across the state. That argument earned Smith more than 46,000 votes. It is unclear whether this represents a crack in the Republican stranglehold on state politics or is simply an aberration.

Montana Governor (Democrat)

As the former vice-president of a firearms company Ryan Busse has unlikely credentials as a Democratic candidate. It could be an incongruity that serves him well.

Busse has not previously served elected office but has mounted a robust campaign in Montana. On Tuesday he drew 71% of the Democratic vote, turning back the challenge presented by Helena attorney Jim Hunt. Both candidates emphasized their opposition to the legislature’s failure to address the state’s 95 mill school equalization tax.

Busse has pledged to make the state’s property taxes more equitable, to stabilize school funding, to protect reproductive rights, and to advocate for statewide environmental and conservation issues.

Cascade County Commissioner District 3

Commissioner Rae Grulkowski came into office in controversy, and it didn’t change much from there. Grulkowski beat out Democrat Don Ryan in 2022 in a bid to finish the last two years of Democrat Jane Weber’s term as Cascade County Commissioner, District 3.

Grulkowski was an open critic of Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Fontana Moore, who drew ire from conservatives for administrating an election in which she was a candidate. Moore ended up losing that 2022 election to political newcomer Sandra Merchant by just 36 votes.

Merchant’s management of subsequent county elections was a constant flashpoint. She was the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging mismanagement, cited for missed election deadlines, and was ultimately removed from her duties as elections administrator by a vote of the Cascade County Commission. Grulkowski was a consistent supporter of Merchant, a position that likely hurt her during Grulkowski’s most recent election bid.

On Tuesday Grulkowski lost the race to represent Cascade County Republicans in the November general election by 14 percentage points. Her replacement is Eric Hinebauch, who is seen as a more moderate Republican candidate and who currently serves on the Great Falls City Commission.

Hinebauch will face off against Don Ryan during the general election this fall. Ryan ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination to retake his position on the Cascade County Commission.

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Governor, Congress and county results from June Montana primary

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