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Democrats aim to make inroads in rural Montana

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The political divide between urban and rural voters has been growing over the past few decades, with Democrats often struggling to motivate people who live in rural areas. For 2024, Democrats are trying to chip away at GOP margins in state races, including in Montana, where organizers hope to revive Democrats hopes in deeply red places. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar has more.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: On a clear August night just outside of south central Absarokee, Mont., a potluck to talk politics drew a crowd of 50 under the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains.

TOMMY FLANAGAN: My dad made the brisket tonight, so thank you for that.

(APPLAUSE)

FLANAGAN: I hope he wasn't counting on leftovers because there's really - there's nothing left.

RAGAR: Tommy Flanagan, a political organizer whose family has ranged in the area for generations, is emceeing the kickoff party for the newly-revived Stillwater County Democratic Central Committee. He's the co-chair.

FLANAGAN: When we were preparing for this a little bit, people would ask me, isn't this type of event just sort of preaching to the choir, right? And I said, there is no choir to preach to.

RAGAR: Stillwater County is red, like really red. Former President Donald Trump won the county in 2020 with 78% of the vote. But Democrats in the area found renewed momentum when Flanagan ran for the state House of Representatives in 2022. Flanagan ran against a previously uncontested Republican. He disagreed with her hard-line conservative views and didn't want to let her go unchallenged.

FLANAGAN: It's like, we can have another unopposed race, or we can say, not in Stillwater County, right? We're going to give people a choice on the ballot this year. And so I hope that's what I did with my campaign.

RAGAR: Flanagan got more than 1,200 votes running on a centrist message focused on agriculture issues and access to public education. Democrats call that a success for a new and openly gay candidate in a conservative district.

FLANAGAN: I had people tell me, I've never voted for a Democrat ever before in my life, and I voted for you. And for me, that's what this is about. It's about moving the needle, one step at a time, back to the center.

RAGAR: He ultimately lost that race by a lot - 46 points. But it's not always about winning the race. It's about running in the race, says Rob Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana.

ROB SALDIN: When you do not even have a presence - you don't even have a heartbeat - in large swaths of a particular state, you're just on the way to a steep decline.

RAGAR: He says Democrats have to play the long game, that building a strong base starts with what can feel like incremental steps.

SALDIN: When you have these lopsided margins in the rural counties, well, if you're a Democrat, you just cannot make that up. There just aren't enough votes. So you don't need to be winning these rural counties, but you need to have those margins be a little tighter.

RAGAR: Montana was once called purple but saw a Republican sweep of all statewide offices in 2020. Two years later, Republicans won a supermajority in the state legislature. Democrats left 37 of 150 legislative seats uncontested, the highest number of uncontested races in a decade. Now just one Democrat remains in statewide office, U.S. Senator Jon Tester, who's up for reelection in 2024. So to say the stakes are high for Montana Democrats this year is an understatement.

SHEILA HOGAN: Jon Tester needs your vote.

(APPLAUSE)

HOGAN: We need Jon Tester. We need each and every one of your votes.

RAGAR: That's Sheila Hogan, executive director of the state party. She hopes Tester's popularity will encourage high voter turnout. And when voters get to the polls, Democrats don't want Tester to be the only Democratic candidate on the ballot. Here's Hogan at the kickoff event.

HOGAN: I don't know that we'll be blue all over the place, but I'd like to see a little bit of purple.

RAGAR: Did you catch that? A little bit of purple is the goal. That's where Democrats in Montana are at now after losing so much ground to Republicans. Saldin says that kind of power consolidation for one party isn't healthy for democracy.

SALDIN: It just feeds polarization, and it pushes each party to be a more extreme version of itself.

RAGAR: As Democrats try to even the playing field here, they're relying on some out-of-state support from Contest Every Race, a national campaign recruiting and funding Democrats in hyper-local elections. Contest Every Race aims to spend $10 million on rural Democratic organizing efforts this cycle. Two major donors to the campaign are an investment fund founded by a Silicon Valley billionaire and the progressive Rural Democracy Initiative.

(LAUGHTER)

RAGAR: Back at the potluck, Kathleen Ralph reminisced on the days when there were several active Democratic candidates in Stillwater County.

KATHLEEN RALPH: If you don't have two people running, then there's no reason for them to be responsive to what you feel. Too many of our elected leaders don't bother to talk. They're invited to meetings, and they don't come. And so you need competition. That's the name of the American game.

RAGAR: If Democrats don't gain some ground this election cycle, the hole they're in will only get deeper. For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar, in Helena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.