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Downing and Driscoll advance to general election in eastern district U.S. House race

Downing and Driscoll
Posted at 1:59 AM, Jun 05, 2024

HELENA — After a sometimes turbulent campaign that ended up with the most crowded field of candidates Montana has seen in years, we now know the Republican and Democratic candidates who will compete for the open U.S. House seat representing the state’s eastern congressional district.

State Auditor Troy Downing took a lead in the Republican primary as soon as results became available, and he was declared the winner shortly after 9 p.m. He celebrated his victory at an event at the Hilands Golf Club in Billings.

“We show up every day: service before self,” said Downing. “And that is what this campaign has been – what it's been all about – and it's what it will continue to be: showing up and serving.”

Downing was previously an entrepreneur, and he served in the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan. In 2020, he was elected auditor, where he regulates insurance and the financial industry in Montana. He gave up a chance to run for reelection to pursue the House race.

As of 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Downing had received 36% of the GOP primary vote, ahead of former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg with 17% and former DEA state supervisor Stacy Zinn with 13%. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and state Senate president pro tem Sen. Ken Bogner each had 9%, former state Sen. Ric Holden had 7%, and former state Rep. Joel Krautter and pharmacist Kyle Austin each had 3%.

Downing had opened up a lead in fundraising over his Republican rivals, and on Monday, he secured an endorsement from former president and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College, says that endorsement was a clear advantage for Downing.

“At least within the Republican primary, he certainly carries a lot of strength, even though he waited until essentially the last day, the last 24 hours to select Downing,” he said. “And of course, a lot of votes were already cast, but there were still plenty that were voted in the last 24 hours.”

The Democratic nominee is John Driscoll, who watched the election results with his wife at their home in Helena. He was declared the winner in his primary just before 10:30 p.m.

Driscoll was a state lawmaker in the 1970s, including one term as House speaker. He then served 12 years on the Montana Public Service Commission, ending in 1993. Since then, he’s been a frequent candidate for Congress, notable for his pledges not to raise or spend campaign funds – a pledge he repeated this year.

“When I get to Washington, if a person's going to make a difference, you'll make a big difference if you get there without campaign money,” he said. “It will be a big statement by the people in Montana, and I need their help to do this. And in return, I'll just tell them straight out what I'm thinking and why I'm doing it.”

Driscoll previously won a Democratic primary for Montana’s then-single U.S. House seat in 2008 – again not raising campaign money.

As of 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Driscoll had received 34% of the Democratic primary vote, ahead of rancher Steve Held with 26%, former pharmaceutical sales representative Ming Cabrera with 21% and Montana Pride president Kevin Hamm with 19%.

One reason this race drew so much interest – eight Republican candidates and four Democrats – is that it’s an opportunity for someone to claim an open seat in Congress. Incumbent Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale was expected to announce a run for U.S. Senate – and did, though he ended his Senate campaign after Trump endorsed businessman Tim Sheehy for the GOP nomination. Rosendale briefly considered running for the House again, but eventually said he wouldn’t seek another term.

Johnson said the district is expected to lean toward Republicans, and he noted Rosendale won well over 50% of the vote in 2022 while facing Democratic, independent and Libertarian candidates. He said a Democratic nominee will face “an uphill battle” and will need to look for specific issues they can draw contrasts on.

“We have elections for a reason, anything can happen, but certainly any analyst going in will say the Republican are strongly favored,” he said.

This year, no Libertarian or Green Party candidates filed to run in the eastern congressional district, so the general election appears to be a straight contest between Downing and Driscoll.