Field of Candidates for 2012 State Offices Begins to Coalesce

By Beacon Staff

While the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate in Montana continues to monopolize media attention, the fields of candidates for many other races are beginning to solidify. And, locally, elections for city councils in Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls are scheduled for November.

Though many voters may feel the elections of 2010 just happened, it’s already time to take note of which candidates will be passing through the Flathead this summer, gauging support before the campaigns begin in earnest this fall. With that, here’s a breakdown of the elections coming up over the next year and a half.

U.S. SENATE – In this, one of the most closely watched races in the country, majority control of the Senate could hang in the balance as Jon Tester, a Democrat, seeks a second term in 2012. He is challenged by Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg in what is going to be an expensive and brutal election, likely to hinge on federal spending and entitlement reform. Rehberg announced last week he was hiring Erik Iverson, his former congressional staffer and former chairman of the state GOP to run his campaign

U.S. HOUSE – Rehberg’s run for Senate leaves his congressional seat open, and more candidates may step up this year to take his place in 2012. So far, the candidates consist of Steve Daines, the vice president of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman and the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 2008. In November, Daines declared he would challenge Tester for the Senate, but when Rehberg entered the race, Daines switched his candidacy to the House.

On the Democrat side, state Rep. Franke Wilmer of Bozeman seeks the House seat. A political science professor at Montana State University, Wilmer is a three-term member of the state House, and was the speaker pro tempore in 2009.

Making news last week was the announcement by John Abarr, a former organizer for the Ku Klux Klan, that he is also running as a Republican for the House. Abarr, of Great Falls, lost a Republican primary for a local legislative seat in 2002. Republicans campaigned against Abarr then, and upon the announcement of his candidacy last week, GOP leaders immediately began rebuking him as a racist.

GOVERNOR – Washington newspaper and website Politico rates Montana’s 2012 gubernatorial race the most competitive in the country, as popular Democrat Brian Schweitzer is term-limited, making for a wide open race.

Among Democrats, Attorney General Steve Bullock would likely be the frontrunner, but he has recently stated he is still deciding between running for a second term as attorney general or going after the governor’s seat. Bullock is already fundraising for 2012, but left blank the line on his filing statement designating which office he intends to seek, a move that drew a Republican complaint.

Two other Democrats, both legislators, have already declared their candidacy for governor: Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman and Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula. Wanzenried represented Kalispell in the state House from 1991-1994 and Missoula from 2001-2006. He has served in the Senate since 2007. Jent, a former Army officer, served in the state House from 2001-2006 and has been a senator since then.

Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch’s name has also been circulating as a candidate for governor, though Lynch hasn’t stated whether he intends to run.

The Republican field is even bigger. Former congressman Rick Hill is leading the field in fundraising so far, raising almost $100,000 in the first quarter of this year. Hill served in congress from 1997-2000, and didn’t seek reelection due to severe eye problems. He has said his vision has since stabilized.

Other GOP contenders include Neil Livingstone, a Washington D.C. security consultant who is originally from Helena. Corey Stapleton, a Billings financial adviser who served in the state Senate from 2000-2008, has been running for governor since July. A month later, Ken Miller, a Laurel businessman and former legislator announced his candidacy for governor. Miller ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2004, and appears to have the backing of some tea party groups in the Flathead.

Jim O’Hara, a 10-year Chouteau County commissioner, has also thrown his hat into the ring for governor.

Ron Vandevender of Cascade is running for governor on the Libertarian Party ticket. He has twice run unsuccessfully for the state House.

LOCAL RACES

In Flathead cities, several elected seats are up for grabs in 2011, and in off years, those races can generate significant excitement and controversy. Nowhere is that more true than Whitefish, where city councilman John Muhlfeld is, so far, the sole candidate for mayor. Muhlfeld, a hydrologist, was elected in 2007 to the council with the most votes of any candidate in the at-large race.

That leaves three open seats on the Whitefish council. So far, two candidates have entered the race, according to the Flathead County Election Department website: Richard Hildner and Johnathan W. Anderson.

In Kalispell, four seats are open on the city council. Incumbents Kari Gabriel, for Ward I, has filed for reelection along with Wayne Saverud, for Ward II. Saverud is being challenged, so far, by Erik Jeude and Chad Graham, who currently serves on the city planning board.

Walter Keathley has filed to run for Ward III, the seat for which is currently held by Randy Kenyon, and no one has yet filed for the open Ward IV seat, which is currently held by M. Duane Larson. In Kalispell, city council members receive a $5,000 salary, plus a $900 stipend.

Whitefish City Council members receive no salary, and in Columbia Falls, city council members receive $200 monthly. Though there are three open seats in Columbia Falls, no one, as of this writing has filed for local office.

Any potential candidates thinking it over have until June 30 at 5 p.m. to file.

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