Political Newcomers Set for Legislative Sprint

By Beacon Staff

Hillary Clinton ended her presidential campaign last week, but in Flathead legislative primaries, several women emerged victorious in key contests – whether they were a candidate, or simply helping one.

In the primary for one of the most contested legislative seats in the state, Whitefish’s Senate District 2, Brittany MacLean defeated Gil Jordan for the Democratic nomination. In Kalispell, Democrat Cheryl Steenson trounced her opponent John de Neeve to run for downtown’s House District 8 in the fall.

And in Bigfork, Republican Scott Reichner does not believe he could have won without the help of two driven, inspirational women.

At the statewide level, last week’s upset victories by obscure candidates seeking to challenge powerful incumbents Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in the general election make it unlikely those offices will change hands. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, at this stage, also looks strong heading into the general election against state Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings.

All of which means local legislative races are going to be the key battleground for Republicans and Democrats looking to make gains. And out of those races few, if any, are more important than Senate District 2. With the endorsement of every Flathead Democratic lawmaker, Jordan was clearly the establishment candidate, but MacLean attributes her victory to basic, grassroots politics: knocking on doors and making phone calls.

“We did everything that was free,” MacLean said. “We were confident and we did lots of outreach.”

MacLean plans to focus her general campaign on improving education and policies to help families struggling with the increasing prices of gas, energy and food. She will face Republican Ryan Zinke, who defeated Suzanne Brooks handily in the GOP primary. Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL and self-described “Teddy Roosevelt” Republican emphasizing conservation and fiscal responsibility, is a Whitefish native, like MacLean. The race is likely to see relatively large infusions of cash by both parties intent on gaining a majority in the Senate.

“We are well aware that this is a very critical and important race and we’re excited,” MacLean said.

A few miles south in Kalispell, Steenson is breathing a sigh of relief after her first foray into politics resulted in a primary victory.

“I was very nervous,” Steenson said. “It just reiterated for me that it really is about people, not politics.”

Like MacLean, Steenson has been knocking on doors and working the phones for months, finding most people in her district concerned primarily with the direction of growth in the Flathead and rising property taxes. She now faces Republican incumbent Craig Witte in a district notorious for swinging from one side of the political aisle to the other.

In Bigfork, Reichner is reeling from the months leading to his upset primary victory over former state Senate President Bob Keenan. Despite the death of his mother on May 15, Reichner considers himself “the luckiest guy in Montana.”

Reichner was largely unable to campaign for the House District 9 Republican nomination, traveling to Utah in the weeks leading up to his mother’s death, and grieving in the weeks following.

“I just couldn’t get my head away from my heart and into the match,” Reichner said. That, along with the extensive legislative experience and widespread name recognition of his main opponent, Keenan, had Reichner ready to back out of the race altogether.

But Reichner’s mother-in-law, Ginny Reed, wouldn’t allow it. While he was in Utah, she campaigned for him, designing newspaper ads, printing fliers, and readying the campaign for his return. Reichner’s mother loved politics, and Reed knew she would have wanted him to win, telling him she felt his mother was prompting her to “carry the banner for him.”

Returning to Bigfork the week before the primary, Reichner began campaigning furiously. The result was a solid victory over his three opponents. Reichner faces Democrat Edd Blackler in the general election for the typically conservative district.