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A survey of Montana Democrats last week shows two well-known candidates in a close race for the party’s nomination in the anticipated U.S. House election this year.

Montana’s U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke is expected to be confirmed as the next secretary of the interior this week. His resignation will trigger a special election within 100 days. Montana Democrats will hold a nominating convention where only members of the state central committee will vote. State Republicans will hold a similar convention.

A Chronicle straw poll of Democratic County Central Committees, the party’s executive board, and chartered partner organizations, shows most supporting political newcomer Rob Quist, with state Rep. Amanda Curtis trailing close behind.

Of the 89 party insiders who participated, 37 said they support Quist for the nomination. Curtis garnered 30 votes, and state Rep. Kelly McCarthy was the preference of 13. The remaining nine said they were undecided.

Dems Straw Poll

A textual analysis of their explanations shows the Democrats holding high regard for candidates with name recognition – 12 respondents said Quist’s name would make him a strong candidate, and five said it worked in Curtis’ favor.

Quist, 69, a long-time Montana musician, has toured the state with his band since the 1970s. Curtis, 37, won the party’s U.S. Senate nomination at a special convention in 2014.

One Curtis supporter highlighted that experience. She has the “proven capacity to raise money quickly,” and “has dealt with the scrutiny of a statewide election.”

Weighing their personal politics against electability, this will be the Democrats first chance to test any backlash against President Donald Trump.

“My wife and I are both delegates and our politics align best with Amanda. We are aware that Rob may have a better chance to attract the rural right,” said a Curtis supporter.

“Mr. Quist is a competent candidate and has the capability of garnering the support of not only Democratic voters, but independent and conservative voters too,” said another.

Some of the answers pointed out that Curtis’ age would allow her to hold the seat for decades; others said her gender and progressive politics are right for the times.

“She is an experienced candidate with good name recognition. She is the most ‘Bernie’-like of the bunch. She has legislative experience. She is a she,” another Curtis supporter wrote in the poll.

But that might not be just right for the state that elected President Trump and most other Republicans by a wide margin last November.

“While I would love to see the women candidates, I think we need a candidate that can pull in eastern Montana,” a Quist supporter said.

McCarthy’s supporters like the 50-year-old’s service in the Air Force and that he’s a Billings native. “I believe that Kelly McCarthy has what it takes to bring people that voted Republican in November over to the Democratic side,” said one person. Another said McCarthy “is a well-spoken and knowledgeable moderate who will be able to get his agenda on the table.”

No participants supported Bozeman’s John Meyer. Two others, Lee Neimark of Whitefish and Dan West of Missoula, were not included in the poll. No names were written into the poll’s “other” option.

The two-question survey was sent to 223 Montana Democrats via email on Feb. 4. Two reminder emails were sent before the poll closed on Feb. 8.

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Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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