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Montana could tip the balance of the Senate. Will Trump's conviction help or hurt?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There is a Republican primary in Montana on Tuesday to decide who will run against Democratic Senator Jon Tester. It's expected to be a tight race and could determine control of the U.S. Senate. Donald Trump looms large. Montana Public Radio's John Hooks reports on how some voters there are thinking about his criminal conviction.

JOHN HOOKS, BYLINE: Gabrielle Drew (ph) is a 21-year-old barista at the Oro Fino Coffee shop in Butte. On Friday, she says...

GABRIELLE DREW: I absolutely think it's a topic of the morning, at least three different conversations that were pretty politically charged about it.

HOOKS: Customer Chelsea Smith (ph), who is 35, says there's no doubt in her mind about the former president's guilt.

CHELSEA SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I think it is, like, obvious that he is a criminal. And I think he has been - and kind of like a caricature of, like, the typical United States criminal - just, like, an old, white man stealing money from the generation below him.

HOOKS: Smith says she was positively surprised a jury decided to convict someone with so much power and influence.

SMITH: That 12, just, like, regular, normal people came to that conclusion, I think is positive for, like, the, like, United States ethos, and, like, where we're actually at.

HOOKS: Butte has long been a democratic stronghold. Across the state in Billings, where oil refineries and livestock auction yards are mainstays, Gail Brazelton (ph) had a different take. The 78-year-old, who works at a rare coin dealer, was outside a local grocery store.

GAIL BRAZELTON: I think they took him to the cleaners. and I think everything they're doing is to break him. I think he's not done anything that any of other - Bill Clinton was horrible. And Trump, they just don't like him. He's a good businessman, and he helps America, and he's not getting rich off of us. And I think what they did to him was horrible.

HOOKS: Brazelton said the conviction only firmed up her support of Trump.

BRAZELTON: Oh, hell, yeah, I'm voting for Trump all the way.

HOOKS: Sixty-year-old construction worker, Todd Brown (ph), describes his political affiliation this way.

TODD BROWN: It's - I'm kind of medium between the two. When there's a Democrat, I'm more Republican. But when there's a Republican, I sway back more Democrats.

HOOKS: He hopes the guilty verdicts mean the American political and justice systems might be working and can't be bought. He wasn't expecting a guilty outcome.

BROWN: I was surprised that they did do what they did, which is - I'm glad. Yeah, I'm really glad.

HOOKS: Nevaeh Kilsnet (ph) is a college student studying musical performance. She turned 18 last year but says Trump's conviction won't change how she casts her first ballot.

NEVAEH KILSNET: No, not really. I wasn't really originally planning to vote for him anyways.

HOOKS: Kilsnet says Trump's ability to run, despite the conviction, exposes a double standard in the justice system.

KILSNET: 'Cause I know that incarcerated felons, they can't vote. So I just think it's just really - it just feels weird, the fact that you can get charged with a crime and you can still run. But if you're, like, serving your time, you can't vote. It just feels off.

HOOKS: In Montana, Donald Trump won by at least 16 points in each of the last two presidential elections. For NPR News, I'm John Hooks in Butte, Mont.

SIMON: Yellowstone Public Radio's Kayla Desroches in Billings contributed to this report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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