By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories looking at the 2016 primary race ahead of Montana’s June 7 primary election. On Tuesday we’ll look at the Democratic race.)
In 2008, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton nearly deadlocked in their race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Montana voters headed to the polls on June 3 not knowing who the party’s nominee would be.
It was an exciting time for Montana Democrats because the state’s June primary election is usually too late in the nominating process to have an impact on the outcome. The presidential nominees are usually decided long before voters here get a chance to cast their ballots.
But for the second time in just eight years Montana will see presidential campaigns come to the treasure state.
This year it’s Montana Republicans who are most looking to June 7 for a chance to have a say in the process.
That’s because the battle for the GOP nomination between front-runner Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich probably won’t be decided before the July 18 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
Though Trump has a commanding lead in the GOP delegate count, many political observers believe he’ll have a difficult time picking up enough delegates in the remaining primary contests to get to the 1,237 he needs to secure his party’s nomination.
That means Montana could play an important role in the final outcome of the race.
“[Trump’s] shortfall in Wisconsin leaves it pretty tough for him to get to a majority of the delegates,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Skelley said as June 7 approaches, the 27 delegates up for grabs in Montana’s GOP primary could be vital to choosing the nominee.
“Montana Republicans are in a much better position to have an impact on the nomination process this year,” Skelley said. “The only way Trump can reach 1,237 delegates is on June 7. Everyone will be paying a lot of attention to California, but the 27 delegates in Montana are no laughing matter.”
Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, said voters here are excited to have a chance to participate in a meaningful way for the first time in 40 years.
“We’ll play a role, one way or another,” Essmann said.
Montana’s delegate convention – where the party faithful gather to pick the 27 individuals who will represent the treasure state at the national convention in Cleveland – takes place May 14 in Billings.
According to state party rules, the 27 GOP delegates elected at the state convention are bound to the winner of Montana’s June 7 primary and must vote for that candidate on the first ballot at the national convention. However, if the winner of Montana’s primary election doesn’t end up with enough delegates to get to 1,237 and win the nomination on the first ballot, then Montana’s delegates are released and can vote for the candidate of their choosing on subsequent ballots.
If the national GOP convention becomes contested, then the political allegiance of delegates becomes very important, said Skelley.
“The moment you get to a second ballot, a huge number of delegates are freed up and can vote their personal feelings on the matter,” Skelley said. “Ted Cruz is almost surely making the most progress on this, based on everything I’ve read, to get double-agent delegates.”
At least two of the GOP presidential candidates, Cruz and Kasich, have campaigns on the ground in Montana working to get their supporters elected as delegates to the national convention.
Essmann said he is not aware of an active pro-Trump campaign working in Montana.
Skelley said given what’s at stake at the national convention this year, he doesn’t expect Montana to be a “flyover state” for GOP candidates.
“Montana is very much the kind of state Ted Cruz should do well in,” Skelley said. “Given where he’s been successful so-far geographically, I would definitely expect to see him there.”
Skelley said he also wouldn’t be shocked to see Trump make a few stops in Big Sky Country.
“I don’t like to guess what Trump is going to do because he’s so difficult to predict. For sure I’d be shocked if Cruz didn’t make a stop in Montana,” Skelley said.
Essmann said he thinks it’s far too early to predict what will happen at the national convention. Essmann said it all comes down to who ends up on the rules committee and what rules they set for this year’s convention.
“When it convenes the most important vote will be the first vote, which will adopt the temporary rules of the convention,” Essmann said. “At this point anyone who says ‘this is going to happen or that is going to happen’ is hazarding a guess because nobody knows the rules yet.”
Essmann, one of Montana’s three “automatic delegates,” said he hopes to be on that committee.
Essmann, who served as president of the Montana Senate during an exceptionally contentious 2013 legislative session, said he has “a lot of interest in rules.”
“I have a lot of experience with rules, especially executing them under times of stress,” he said.