Long Election Night Draws High Turnout and Mixed Returns

By Beacon Staff

On an Election night where Democrats made enormous gains on the national stage – winning the presidency and a number of Congressional seats – in Flathead County, the night belonged mostly to Republicans, who won several decisive victories in several local races. Democrats held onto one House seat, while a downtown Kalispell district looks poised to flip from red to blue. And at a time of deep economic uncertainty, voters rejected bonds for open space and a parks maintenance fee in the city of Kalispell, but passed a bond to build a 911 center by a narrow margin.

Republican Jim Dupont, a former county sheriff with widespread name recognition, ran as a staunch advocate of property rights and won a decisive victory for county commissioner over Democrat Steve Qunell, winning 64 percent of the vote.

“I’m overwhelmed that the people of Flathead County are still confident enough in what I did as sheriff that they’d trust me to continue that work with the commission,” Dupont said, while celebrating with a small group of family and friends at Kalispell’s Outlaw Inn.

“I have great respect for Steve,” Dupont said of his opponent. “I think he did very well despite some obstacles, like my name recognition. In the end, I just don’t think the public was ready for everything he was recommending.”

Election results are based on the Flathead County Election Department’s latest unofficial report, issued as of 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. Several hundred provisional ballots, and ballots under review by election observers have yet to be added to the total. According to the latest report, 42,165 votes were cast out of 58,365 registered voters, putting turnout at 72 percent.

Incumbent Democratic Rep. Mike Jopek held onto his seat in Whitefish’s House District 4, defeating Republican John Fuller with 52 percent of the vote. And Democratic newcomer Cheryl Steenson appeared to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Craig Witte to represent Kalispell’s House District 8. Steenson was at the county courthouse building until 2:30 a.m. waiting for the absentee ballots to be counted, which looked as if they would carry her to a razor-thin victory.

“I’m grateful and humbled by it,” Steenson said, praising her campaign volunteers and family. “I have an incredible family made up of the best Republicans in the state.”

In the rest of the Flathead’s key battleground elections for state House and Senate seats, Republicans emerged victorious, helping to tip the balance of power in the state Legislature to the right as Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer cruised to an easy re-election.

In Whitefish, Republican Ryan Zinke won a close race for state Senate District 2, over Democrat Brittany MacLean, taking 52 percent of the vote. The seat was previously held by Democratic Sen. Dan Weinberg.

On Election night at the Outlaw Inn, Zinke was visibly relieved to be finished with a race that grew negative in its home stretch.

“I’m ready to get to the important part of this,” Zinke said. “I meant what I said while I was running, that I’m a Montanan first and then a representative of this, my district, who will always approach things with an open mind and kind heart.”

Republican Dee Brown, a former representative of Columbia Falls’ House District 3, won her seat back over Democrat Mick Holm, the former superintendent of Glacier National Park who had strong name recognition. House District 3 is another blue seat in the Legislature, previously held by Democrat Doug Cordier, that is now turning red. Brown won by a decisive 54 percent.

Republican Bruce Tutvedt won the election for state Senate District 3 handily over Democrat Mark Holston, keeping that seat in the hands of the GOP, with a 58 percent victory. Republican Keith Regier also won by a large margin over Democrat Jake Pannell in the race for state House District 5, an open race for a seat that went once again for the GOP. Republican Jon Sonju easily defended House District 7 over Democratic challenger Shannon Hanson.

Republican Bill Beck also defended his seat in House District 6 against Democrat Scott Wheeler and Constitution Party candidate Timothy Martin. Down in Bigfork, Republican Scott Reichner kept House District 9 in GOP hands, defeating Democrat Edd Blacker decisively, and incumbent Republican Mark Blasdel of Somers held onto his House District 10 seat against Democrat Carla Augustad.

“I think, as a group, we did a good job of laying out a plan and carrying it out,” Blasdel said. “We also put together a very strong team of candidates – Ryan Zinke, for example, was perfect for his district.”

The 911 center bond passed narrowly, with 19,575 voters approving to 19,409 votes opposed.

Beacon Reporter Keriann Lynch contributed to this report.