Battleground districts dot state political landscape

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Forget red districts and blue districts when looking for an election-year slugfest. The color where the action’s at is a very deep, and in Montana extremely rare, purple.

“This district is in play because it’s solidly purple,” said Jessica Karjala, a Billings Democrat who flipped a Republican House district two years ago and now has a GOP challenger breathing down her neck. “It’s composed of two really different precincts.”

The one-term incumbent told The Gazette that she hasn’t felt comfortable enough to stop knocking on doors. Karjala’s challenger, Republican Robert Saunders, said he’ll spend about eight hours a day from now to Nov. 8 trying to convince constituents that he’s their guy.

The grittiest of battleground districts, identified by campaign workers from both parties, are few in number and similar in characteristics. They’re spread across large communities like Billings and Missoula, as well as smaller ones, like Livingston. They have battle scars from previous elections.

Karjala’s House District 48 was half of a Senate District that in 2010 set the state record for money spent in a legislative race, more than $100,000, and ended with a Democratic challenger narrowly defeating an incumbent Republican. The seat was held by Republican Dennis Lenz two years ago, who had more campaign cash than Karjala, but was out-hustled.

This year’s HD 48 race has been a battle. Last month, Saunders’s attorney wrote Karjala a warning letter accusing her of attempting to damage his reputation by suggesting he believes only rich people should vote. The allegation was based on an online survey response Saunders filled out.

Saunders told The Gazette that Karjala is misinterpreting what he wrote. Likewise, Karjala is accusing Saunders of misrepresenting her record by telling constituents she voted to give herself a pay raise, which she didn’t.

Between them, the HD 48 candidates have $40,000 to spend on the race.

In Missoula, Adam Hertz has raised $21,000 in his challenge of incumbent Andrew Person in House District 96. The district, which Republicans say is one of their top races, includes the northwest corner of the city and a rapidly growing portion of the county.

Person, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, won this area with a three-figure cushion two years ago. But Republicans also did well in the region. The Democratic incumbent understands why Republicans like the race. He has raised about $10,000 for his campaign.

“I think when I won the race in 2014, a lot of people were scratching their heads about how I won it,” Person said. “If you look at the statewides, Ryan Zinke won here by a substantial margin. It looks like there’s a lot of cross-party voting.”

Hertz knows the margins. He said Person won the district by less than 200 votes. Zinke carried the district by about 400 votes. There had to be crossover, which is one reason the real estate agent is excited. Hertz also has a political victory on this turf. In 2011, he was elected to the Missoula City Council as a Republican, which isn’t exactly like winning the Powerball, but it isn’t easy. Hertz won by five votes in a recount. Because he did well in the city portion of HD 96, Hertz likes his odds.

“It’s certainly a district that has a lot of swing voters,” said Hertz, who thinks rural voters will lean Republican, improving his prospects. “I expect that it will be within 100 votes or less, but I like that better than five votes.”

Livingston could have the toughest race of all. Republican incumbent Debra Lamm is being challenged in House District 60 by Laurie Bishop, a 20-year resident of Livingston.

But the real purple hue in HD 60, which runs from Livingston west to the Gallatin County line, comes from a bruising political history of upsets. Since 2007, the district has swung back and forth between the parties four times.

There’s about $24,000 between the two candidates. 

“Deb Lamm, that is a race we think we can pick up handily this year,” said Amanda Frickle, who works on legislative races for the Montana Democrats. “Laurie has lived there for 20 years. She’s a Main Street business woman. She’s working to assure that high-schoolers graduate.” 

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