By BOB ANEZ AP Political Writer
HELENA - Montana Democrats think this is their year. Again.
They have been on the political sidelines since 1995, while the Republicans had held the Senate, House and governor's office. Now, they believe they have a shot of reclaiming a piece of their long-lost power.
Convinced Montanans are dissatisfied with a decade of GOP control and armed with legislative districts redrawn by Democrats, the minority hopes to claim the handful of seats needed to control the House or Senate.
Democrats have said this before and never reached that goal, despite chipping away at the Republican majorities. The Democratic Party is within striking distance this time, said Chairman Bob Ream.
''I think it's the best opportunity we have had in some time. The pendulum is swinging back,'' he said.
The trend is clear, as the party has made up 14 House seats and five in the Senate over the past three elections, he said. ''We're building on our past success. We're right up there, close to a majority in both.''
Republicans hold a 29-21 edge in the Senate and a 53-47 margin in the House, and a GOP leader predicts the caliber of candidates his party has recruited will protect those majorities.
The Democratic-crafted legislative boundaries put Republicans at some disadvantage, but not enough to overcome the tendency of voters to support the better candidates regardless of party affiliation, said House Majority Leader Roy Brown, R-Billings.
''When people in various districts around the state look at the candidates, one on one, they will pick the Republican candidates,'' he predicted.
Brown, who heads the GOP's legislative candidate recruitment effort, said Montanans are not fed up with Republicans as Ream contends. The GOP will benefit from an economy where unemployment is low, and job creation and income growth are among the best in the nation, he said.
''People are going to say things the Republicans have done in the last eight to 10 years have put us on the right track and are going to stick with us,'' Brown said.
Ream counters that Montanans are concerned about more than economic issues, and discouraged over the state of health care and education under Republican control.
''They feel Democrats offer hope and opportunity for the future'' and will try harder to work with the opposing party than have Republicans, he said.
The new legislative districts will be a ''slight benefit'' to Democrats, but they already were whittling away at GOP control before the new political map was drawn, Ream said.
The two parties head into the 2004 legislative elections dead even.
In the Senate, 11 Democrats and 14 Republicans are not up for election this year. Another six Democratic and three GOP candidates are running unopposed. That leaves each party assured of 17 seats before any votes are cast.
In the House, nine candidates from each side are unopposed.
The June 8 primary election will have 41 legislative races for party nominations, 26 among Republicans and 15 with Democrats. Eleven seats have at least four candidates.
The most popular is Senate District 2 in Flathead County, where four Republicans and one Democrat are running. Incumbent Republican Bob DePratu of Whitefish cannot run because of term limits.
Nine incumbents - seven Republican and two Democrats - face challenges from within their own party, including Republican Sens. Jerry O'Neil of Kalispell and Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow. O'Neil is considered one of the most conservative GOP lawmakers, while Kitzenberg has often voted with Democrats on issues.
Other lawmakers with intraparty opposition are Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls; and Reps. Hal Jacobson, D-Helena; George Everett, R-Kalispell; Daniel Hurwitz, R-White Sulphur Springs; Diane Rice, R-Harrison; Don Roberts, R-Billings; and Ron Stoker, R-Hamilton.
Thirty-four lawmakers - 23 Republicans and 11 Democrats - are not running to keep their seats. Fourteen of those are prevented by term limits.
Eighteen lawmakers are seeking another office. Eleven representatives want a Senate seat, three senators are vying for House spots, and two are after seats on the Public Service Commission. Rep. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, is a candidate for lieutenant governor; and Rep. Cindy Younkin, R-Bozeman, is running for the Supreme Court.
That means 20 legislators are certain not to be back for the 2005 session. The list includes Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, and House Speaker Doug Mood, R-Seeley Lake.
In all, 283 candidates are running for the 125 legislative seats on the ballot this year. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 136 to 129. Third party contenders account for the remaining 18.