Ronning talks about campaigning in Montana, the forgotten ag community, and why Dems struggle

Political scientist: Dems in Montana hurt by nationalization of politics

By: - March 7, 2023 1:24 pm

Democrat Penny Ronning and Independent Gary Buchanan participate in Western Native Voice’s debate in Billings on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Community Seven Television livestream)

Democrats, you could learn a lot from Republicans.

That’s one of the key takeaways from Democrat, former Congressional candidate, and former Billings City Councilwoman Penny Ronning.

She ran in a tough three-way race against both incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale, who cruised to reelection with nearly 60 percent of the vote, as well as independent candidate Gary Buchanan, who captured 22 percent of the vote.

Montana’s now-eastern and central Congressional district is decidedly conservative, but Ronning said part of that is the political make-up of the region, but it’s also because the Democrats are failing to reach out to people in an area she believes the party has nearly abandoned.

Overall, traveling around Montana, Ronning said, she had “one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” by meeting voters and talking about issues. And it was from those conversations that she realized that she shared so many values with the more conservative folks she met – values that are part of the Democratic Party. She said the national party, though, and its support of candidates for Congress is anywhere but the rural areas.

“I really learned that there is a significant difference between the Democratic Party and a Democratic candidate,” she said. “I would have thought that naturally that the party would have embraced me, but that didn’t happen. You learn very quickly as a candidate you’re on your own.”

She said that stood in stark contrast to her opponent, Rosendale, who had the full-throated support of the Republican Party which was willing to door-knock, plan events and raise money, even though the Maryland-turned-Montanan spent little in comparison.

She said Democratic leadership has failed to translate what the party stands for into meaningful policy.

“There’s no vision from leadership where people can attach to,” Ronning said. “That’s a failure of the party, not the candidates.”

She said much of the focus in Montana centers on Helena or Missoula, leaving the eastern portion of the state to fend for itself.

“Get out of Helena and actually go spend time in the rural areas,” Ronning said. “North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho are all rural states, but the national party is sacrificing us for Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.”

She said for all her disagreements with the Republican Party, she said it works to support candidates at local and state levels, rather than focusing on national politics. She also said the Democratic Party seems more interested in fundraising than winning elections, a common complaint of politicians from all parties.

“We have winning issues, but we can’t get our message out: You cannot separate agriculture from healthcare or the economy from energy,” Ronning said. “For example, they don’t want to see the rural issues as one of the most critical, but it’s the food we eat. If we lose control of our food for our own country, that’ll be more dangerous than Putin.”

Montana Democratic Party officials push back on Ronning’s assertions that it is out of touch with rural areas of the state.

When asked about it, Montana Democratic Party leader Sheila Hogan said:

“Democrats have led on investing in high speed internet for rural Montana, worked across the aisle to deliver once-in-a generation investment in rural infrastructure, roads, and bridges, and delivered Medicaid expansion to ensure that community health care providers don’t close.

“In 2024, it’s our job to make sure Montanans know that. Our central committees in every corner of the state are engaged and growing fast. We’ve already started building up an organizing team, ready to get Jon Tester reelected in 2024.”


Ronning said when she hit the road in Montana during campaigning, she heard from many in rural Montana about the crisis small communities and family farms are facing, issues that she said get short shrift by the national party. Ronning heard about chronic disease, mental health, substance abuse and healthcare.

“Drug abuse is just as prevalent in those areas,” she said. “We relegate ag to a level that it’s not as important because it’s not where the population centers are and that’s the Democrat Party mistake.”

She said most of the national candidates are busy raising money for the party, and not paying more attention to voters.

“If you’re not out raising money, they’re not going to look in your direction. That’s the establishment,” she said.

She said that President Joe Biden has been good for America, including curbing inflation, putting more emphasis on diversifying domestic agriculture and focusing on working families.

“The message is still defensive,” Ronning said. “We’re not seeing down ballot Democratic candidates win because the voters don’t see that their values align with the national party. “

She said she knew that was true from getting out and hosting forums and knocking on doors.

“One of the most common things I heard was: I didn’t expect you to be as reasonable or as thoughtful and I heard you speak to the issues,” she said. “We can’t put the blame on the Republicans if we don’t have a message and a way to reach rural America.”

She said that includes doing more to boost broadband and technology infrastructure, not so unlike how electricity and the telephone service expanded in the previous century.

She was pleasantly surprised that even when her message touched on some of her core beliefs, like being a white feminist who supports campaign finance reform that voters still seemed receptive.

“I do stand for what I say, and I say what I stand for,” she said.

Political scientist Jessi Bennion, who teaches at both Carroll College and Montana State University, said that Democrats are in a tricky spot both in Montana and on a national level.

“The Democratic brand is not resonating with locals because of the nationalization of politics,” Bennion said.

That means that previously most of the voters selected candidates based on their local knowledge of the person, and then looked at the party affiliation. Now, that has completely reversed where voters of both major parties look at the affiliation first, then the individual candidates.

She explained that in a state like Montana, which typically and traditionally has leaned conservative, the default is the Republican Party. This has also led to a new trend of voting straight-party tickets in Montana, a state that was also historically known for splitting tickets.

“The Dems do well when they talk about issues locally. They have to separate from the brand,” Bennion said. And, that’s difficult to do when most people look at the party first.

“Because politics are so nationalized, personal identities are tied up in an identity to the party,” Bennion said.

Bennion also said that both parties must decide where to spend money on a national, state and local level – looking how to capture the most voters with the resources. That often causes parties to spend in urban areas of states where the chances of winning are better.

“I hear what Penny is saying and she’s right in many ways,” Bennion said. “But if I put on my party hat, then they have to look at the votes.”

Ronning believes even though the party has failed many candidates, it’s also missing an immense opportunity to connect with moderate Republicans and other independents who are fed up with the politicians on the political right.

She said the landslide victory for incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale wasn’t surprising, especially since she blames independent candidate Gary Buchanan for playing the role of foil, splitting the vote from voters who may not like Rosendale’s stances, which are often right of even most in the Republican Party.

“I don’t think it’s Matt Rosendale,” he said. “I haven’t met anyone who loves him, but it’s the Republicans who have strong messaging. They’re not afraid to lose but Dems are scared. Every time the Republicans lose, they come back stronger.”

But Ronning said Democrats don’t come back. Many of the candidates who jump in races often lose, and never run again. In nearly one-third of races for the Legislature in 2022 didn’t field a candidate other than a Republican.

“We’re not going to get better because there’s no introspection,” she said. “Those of us in the Democratic Party, especially those in rural states, they force to conform to their values, but we want to talk. Our boldness, though, has been hushed or quieted.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.