HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Democratic Party is courting and supporting candidates for local offices to capitalize on a renewed interest in politics and to create a bigger pool of candidates for legislative seats in future years.

Nick Lockridge, coordinator of the Blue Bench project, says he's been in contact with local Democratic central committees to help identify candidates for local offices. The party wants to help those candidates feel comfortable running a campaign so they might seek a higher office someday, he said.

"These smaller and hyper-local offices are a smooth entry point for people looking to get involved," Lockridge told Lee Newspapers of Montana.

Montana Democrats had a rough 2016, with Republican President Donald Trump winning the state by 20 percentage points and all the statewide elected offices, with the exception of governor, ending up in Republican hands. Republicans have a strong majority in the state Legislature and also won the special election for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke's seat after he was appointed Interior Secretary.

Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said there's been an increased interest in people running for office since the November 2016 elections.

Blue Bench is working with 17 candidates for county-level races and two for open Public Service Commission seats.

"We're happy with the progress right now because we have races and candidates in all four corners of the state," Lockridge said. "We want to be the program that provides a place for them to learn how to run a campaign" and to "know they have a support network."

Gallatin County Auditor Jennifer Blossom is running for county treasurer. She says she's glad races like hers won't be forgotten as party leaders focus on legislative or statewide races. Blossom hasn't run a contested race since 2002.

"It's a whole new ballgame right now," Blossom said. "Things on social media weren't like they are now. Campaigning is a little bit different. Some of the finance requirements are different than they were 16 years ago."

Democrats in Washington and Wyoming are looking at creating similar programs, Lockridge said.