- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2022

A crush of candidates jumped into the race for Montana’s new House seat created in the 2020 Census redistricting, but Democrat Jack Ballard is going the other way.

He is gunning for the 2nd Congressional District and incumbent Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who holds what was previously the state’s single at-large district.

Mr. Ballard is the only Democrat in the race so far, but the odds of him winning the general election are long in heavily Republican Montana.

“I’ve spent a lot of time campaigning in rural Montana,” Mr. Ballard said in an interview. “That was my world. I can walk up to any farmer or rancher on the street in eastern Montana and strike up a conversation. I know how they live. I know the kind of challenges they face.”

Mr. Ballard, an outdoors writer and photographer, is an avid hunter, fisherman and conservationist who grew up on his grandfather’s homestead ranch in Three Forks, a city that is home to fewer than 2,000 residents.

He views his campaign as a test of his rural roots against a Democratic Party that’s out of touch with rural America. So he’s also going his own way with his campaign platform.

Mr. Ballard’s strategy is to stick with an economic plan, rather than a cultural message. That includes rejecting aspects of his party that isolate his electorate.

“You can’t go out and scare the hell out of them with stupid stuff like defund the police and open the borders,” he told The Washington Times. 

The candidate, instead, is focusing on jobs, raising wages, health care access, and conservation issues that remain relevant across the state.

Mr. Rosendale, a Maryland transplant who for the past decade has been ensconced in Montana politics, did not directly comment on Mr. Ballard‘s candidacy but asserted his intention to run for a second term.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the support I’ve received in the past and am honored to serve as Montana’s congressman,” he said. “It is my hope that I can once again count on the broad-based support of Montanans as I run for reelection as their representative in Montana’s 2nd Congressional District.”

The freshman congressman has had the backing of some of the biggest players in the Republican Party. He won his race by more than 10 points in 2020 and was endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Whip Steve Scalise, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas

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Mr. Ballard has his work cut out for him.

“It’s an uphill battle for that race for sure. I think Rosendale is pretty much a shoo-in to be reelected,” said Jessikay Bennion, a political science professor at Montana State University.

Montana, which has a population of about a million, has had an at-large congressional district since 1990. Next year, it will have two House seats for the first time in four decades.

The old at-large seat is now the 2nd Congressional District in eastern Montana.

The new 1st Congressional District seat in western Montana has already drawn a stampede of contenders from both sides of the aisle, including former congressman and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the GOP primary.

Democrats in the race for the open seat include former state lawmaker Tom Winter, state Rep. Laurie Bishop and Cora Neumann, a public health professional.

Mr. Ballard avoided that scrum.

Mr. Bennion said that if Mr. Ballard can play up his background and distance himself from the extreme wing of his party, he could find success in a similar vein to Sen. Jon Tester, a longtime Montana Democrat who has broken with Democrats on key votes.

Most recently, Mr. Tester joined his Republican colleagues in voting to repeal President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandate for private businesses having at least 100 employees.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, another swing vote, was the only other Democrat to break ranks with his party on the vote.

Mr. Tester said his advice for Democrats to recapture rural areas is to show up, even in places where they might not get the most support.

“They just need to get out and let people know what they stand for, what they’re going to fight for. Go everywhere,” Mr. Tester said in an interview.

Mr. Ballard acknowledged that party divides are stark in his state, but he said he thinks his candidacy is stronger, even as a Democrat, because he can point to his humble beginnings.

“I do think rural people would prefer to be represented by somebody who really understands their world,” Mr. Ballard said. “I really feel that’s one of my strongest assets in this campaign.”

• Mica Soellner can be reached at msoellner@washingtontimes.com.

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