A key factor in deciding the outcome of Montana's high-profile Senate race will be whether independent women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 will stick with the president and Republicans again this year, political observers said.
Hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots were mailed Friday in Montana, where U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is fighting to keep his seat. Tester is one of 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in states won by Trump in 2016. The Montana race has tightened in recent weeks after a half-dozen rallies by the president, his eldest son and Vice President Mike Pence in support of the Republican candidate, Matt Rosendale.
Women in particular seem to be highly motivated to vote this year, and volunteerism among women for both parties appears to be up compared to past midterm elections, according to recent Associated Press interviews with candidates, party leaders, advocacy groups and political scientists.
Election Day will cap a period that has seen a record number of women run for office, renewed activism over Trump's administration and the advent of the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct. In Montana, an estimated 10,000 people filled Helena's streets for the 2017 women's march and former state legislator Kathleen Williams defeated two better-funded male candidates to win the Democratic U.S. House primary.
Williams, who is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte in November's election, said in a recent interview that she believes many women who voted for Trump in 2016 dislike the lack of civility coming from the White House and now regret their role in giving the president a 20-point win over Hillary Clinton in Montana.
"I think a lot of the Trump vote was a default vote," Williams said. "They just couldn't quite get themselves to vote for Hillary. So if we give them the right candidate, I'm not sure we would have seen those 20 points."
Women also are concerned about how the Trump administration's policies will affect health care, affordable childcare and education, and the potential threat that Justice Brett Kavanaugh's addition to the Supreme Court poses for abortion rights, said Ella Smith, program director for the group Montana Women Vote.
"I think that there are a lot of policies and rhetoric that are coming out of the administration that are very dangerous to women," Smith said. "What they really care about is being able to afford to feed the family. I think at the end of the day, that's what's really going to be the motivating factor."
But if women who already leaned to the political left seem eager to vote this year, that enthusiasm appears to have been matched by conservative women in the wake of the accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University.
"The Kavanaugh decision is probably going to motivate some among the Republican base to, No. 1: Show up when many of them weren't going to originally, and then secondly, go all in for Rosendale," Parker said.
Shirley Herrin, the president of the Lewis and Clark Republican Women, said enthusiasm by Republican women has increased, not waned, since 2016 and that her 86-member group has grown this election cycle by 17.
Women see plainly that this is a crucial election, that the Kavanaugh misconduct allegations were uncorroborated and that Trump still fights for the forgotten man — and woman, she said.
"There will be a wave, there will be a red wave in this election such as we've never seen before," she said.
Parker said with both Republican and Democrats locked into their candidates, independent female voters, many of whom voted for Trump in 2016, will be critical in determining the outcome of the Senate race.
"The most important demographic here in the state is how independent and independent women in particular are seeing Kavanaugh and Trump," he said. "I think that demographic is critical."
Tester could benefit if enough women saw Kavanaugh's angry denial of sexual misconduct allegations and concluded that he doesn't have the right temperament for the Supreme Court, he said.
Rosendale's campaign did not respond to two requests for an interview. But when approached at a recent rally in Billings, the state auditor said he believes the Kavanaugh misconduct allegations may help his candidacy because of women disgusted with the Senate hearings.
"I have had a lot of women call up and support me exclusively because of this," he said.
Tester said he's not targeting women who voted for Trump, but that he'll earn those votes based on his record.
"I think we'll get some Republican votes, we'll get some Trump votes, we'll get votes from all across the political spectrum because of that strong record fighting for women," he said.