At a glance

Electoral votes: 3  |  Tossup

D Schweitzer

U.S. Senators:
D Baucus  D Tester

U.S. Representatives:

Montana State House:

Montana State Senate: 

Population 944,632
88.7% White
2.5% Hispanic/Latino
0.6% Asian
6.4% Native American
0.4% Black
Population 799,065
91.8% White
1.5% Hispanic/Latino
0.5% Asian
6.0% Native American
0.3% Black

Presidential election history:
  • 1972R
  • 1976R
  • 1980R
  • 1984R
  • 1988R
  • 1992D
  • 1996R
  • 2000R
  • 2004R
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In the presidential race, Montana has lightened to a pale red, and it's conceivable that Barack Obama might actually take the state from John McCain. Obama has made at least five appearances here and has active offices and an on-the-ground game plan in the state, and his campaign's chief of staff, Jim Messina, is a University of Montana graduate who knows the turf well. Still, with so few electoral votes, Montana won't matter nationally, unless the total electoral counts are extremely close. The presidential race in Montana has more to do with maintaining the momentum of the state's Democrats, who've made notable gains since 2004 (taking a Senate seat, the governorship and control of one chamber of the state Legislature from Republicans).

The last time a Democrat won the presidential race in Montana was 1992, when Bill Clinton lucked out, thanks to Montanans' liking for eccentric third-party candidates. Clinton won a mere 37.6 percent of the votes, but that was enough to beat George W. Bush's 35.1 percent and independent Ross Perot's 26 percent. Libertarian Bob Barr and now-Constitution Party candidate (at least in Montana) Ron Paul, who was popular in much of the West when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, could have a similar effect dividing the state’s conservative voters in November.

Montana's Legislature has become a key battleground. Democrats took control of the Senate in 2004, ending a decade of Republican lock on both chambers. Now the margins are razor-thin: In the Senate, the Democrats' advantage is 26 seats to the Republicans' 24 seats, and in the House, the Republicans nominal advantage is 50 to 49. (The 100th House seat is held by a superconservative Constitution Party leader who votes with hard-line Republicans.) November's election will test the strength of Montana's Republican hard-liners: They've reacted to their losses by rejecting some experienced moderate Republican politicians in the primary, claiming that will give the party a better chance to regain control of both chambers. It may or may not cause middle-ground voters to swing more to Democrats.

The Montana Public Service Commission, meanwhile, which helps set energy policy and oversees energy companies, has three of its five seats up for grabs. The Montana Conservation Voters group has endorsed three Democrats -- John Vincent, Ron Tussing and Gail Gutsche, who are advocates for efficiency and conservation. They could encourage a shift from pollution-prone coal-fired power plants to more aggressive harnessing of Montana’s huge capacity to produce wind energy. Tussing and Gutsche are challenging two Republican incumbents -- Brad Molnar and Doug Mood -- who voted for deregulation of Montana's utilities in 1997, when they were in the Legislature. Deregulation proved disastrous for customers, however, allowing a huge increase in Montana's electricity rates and the ultimate free-market dismantling of the paternal Montana Power Company. Vincent is facing off against Alan Olson, a Republican who has a better record on clean energy.

Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath, whose roots are in the Irish Democratic stronghold of Butte, seeks the state's most important judicial seat (chief justice on the Montana Supreme Court -- an open seat, as the incumbent is retiring). McGrath has been a champion on some environmental issues, such as cleaning up mining wastes and improving public access to state land. McGrath's opponent in the race, Helena lawyer Ron Waterman, has bipartisan support and helped create Montana's public-defender system. But Waterman has also represented a mining company's challenges to Montana's popular ban on cyanide-process gold mining. Montana Conservation Voters has endorsed McGrath. Montana's colorful gun-loving rancher-slash-Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is pretty much a shoo-in for re-election. So are Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House, gun-loving rancher-slash-developer Republican Denny Rehberg, who's seeking a fifth term in office, and Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who also has some ranch roots and seeks a sixth term.

Montana has three ballot measures, but none are controversial. The most notable (I-155) would expand health insurance coverage for kids in needy families. A campaign for a strict anti-abortion constitutional amendment didn't gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot; it would've defined an embryo as a person, and the Catholic Church and some right-to-life groups said it would only result in a futile court battle because it conflicted with the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a right to abortion.

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