Dem primary for new Montana congressional district heats up

Cora Neumann, like others, hopes to be Montana’s first Congressional Democrat in decades

By: - July 13, 2021 5:16 pm

Cora Neumann announced her run for Congress on Tuesday, July 13 (Courtesy Cora for Montana)

A third Democrat has entered the race for Montana’s newly created congressional district, raising the stakes for an election that could represent the party’s best chance of nabbing a seat in the U.S. House in years.

Cora Neumann, a former U.S. Senate candidate from Bozeman with a history of running non-profit issue-advocacy organizations in the state, announced her run for the district Tuesday morning. She said in an interview with the Daily Montanan this week that she’d work to create high-wage jobs in the state, push back on the rising tide of housing prices, support organized labor and push the state to embrace renewable energy.

“I am personally committing that our campaign leaves Montana better than we found it,” she said. 

Neumann emerged from relative obscurity in the 2020 U.S Senate race against Republican Sen. Steve Daines with a respectable fundraising performance before former Montana governor and short-lived presidential candidate Steve Bullock threw his hat into the ring, causing most of the other Democrats to withdraw from the contest and throw their support behind Bullock, who eventually lost to Daines by around 10 points during an especially grim election year for Montana Democrats. Neumann’s campaign committee still has around $93,000 on hand from the last race.

“I built a great network of supporters through that race,” she said. 

Neumann, trained as a public health expert, most recently launched We Are Montana, a political non-profit that works to cultivate “public health leadership” and support candidates and campaigns who “prioritize accessible and affordable health care.”

She also launched the Global First Ladies Alliance, an organization spun off from the RAND Corporation that develops policy initiatives in collaboration with First Ladies from countries around the globe. That work led to collaborations with political families from all sides of the political spectrum — Bush, Obama, Carter — something Neumann says is testament to her open, bipartisan approach.

Neumann said her political outlook is also grounded in her personal experience: Her father died in a lumber mill accident when she was a child, and she was raised by her mother and her union carpenter step-father, who she said traveled across the state to help support the family.

“After doing that for a year, we had to leave the state because it wasn’t sustainable. We’re seeing families go through that right now,” she said, pointing to housing crunches and rising prices across the state. 

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Neumann’s entry into the race, long-rumored, was preceded by two other Democrats, state Rep. Laurie Bishop of Livingston and attorney and former Olympic rower Monica Tranel, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for a Missoula-area Public Service Commission district last cycle. They’re running for a district that technically doesn’t exist yet — although the state knows from population growth measured in the most recent U.S. Census results that it will get two congressional seats for the first time in decades. The Districting and Apportionment Commission is still months away from drawing the line that will divide the districts.

All of the Democrats, plus two Republicans, have said they’re nonetheless planning for running in whatever district isn’t occupied by Congressman Matt Rosendale, a Republican based in Glendive — this will likely mean running in the western half of the state, though whether that district includes Democratic strongholds like Bozeman is an open and influential question.

Other Democratic candidates who had previously said they were mulling a run, including Tom Winter, a former state legislator who unsuccessfully vied for the state’s at-large congressional district in 2020, and Whitney Williams, the daughter of former Montana Democratic Congressman Pat Williams, could not be reached for comment on their current political aspirations. Former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, a one-time occupant of the at-large congressional seat who resigned from his cabinet job in 2018 amid cascading Congressional probes, has already secured the endorsement of former President Donald Trump in his bid to take the new district. His entry to the field was followed by former Republican state lawmaker Dr. Al Olszewski.

With national Democrats holding a razor-thin majority in the U.S. House, the new Montana district has the potential to generate national attention and investment, even in the primary, a relatively new phenomenon for Democrats in the state.

“It’s not unusual for the Democratic primary to be kind of a love fest,” said Lee Banville, a political analyst, former reporter and journalism professor at the University of Montana. But with the Democrats facing “probably their greatest opportunity to exert some influence in this state,” this cycle may well be more bruising — and expensive — than primaries in the past.

“The chances of this race bringing in a lot of outside money is significant,” he said.

At this early stage in the contest, the three candidates have centered similar issues — livability, healthcare, public lands and so on — largely distinguishing themselves with their personal stories and slick campaign websites. There’s Neumann, a public health expert in the COVID era and a child of organized labor; Bishop, an experienced lawmaker in legislative leadership; Tranel, the Olympian and attorney who took on Northwestern Energy in the courtroom.

“It’s a battle of narratives more than policy,” Banville said. “Do I have the story, the campaign skills to take this seat and run an effective campaign, to be a compelling candidate.”

Further entries into the race — especially someone with a dynastic connection to Montana politics like Williams — could further alter the dynamic. And, of course, there’s the chance that Republicans continue their ascendance in state politics, especially given that midterm elections are often unfavorable to the parties of newly elected presidents.

Neumann said Montanans have a history of splitting tickets, and said the fact that they won’t have to run for a statewide district could mean that Democrats will fare better in this congressional race than they have in the past.

Whether national donors and organizations will invest in campaign infrastructure at any stage of the race depends simply on how winnable the district is, which in turn depends on whether Democratic strongholds like Bozeman end up in the western district or more conservative eastern district, said Melissa Shannon, executive vice president of Strategies 360 Montana, the local arm of a political consultancy that operates across the West.

“It all depends on how competitive it is. And we won’t know that until the lines are drawn,” she said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.

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