2014 Shapes Up

By Kellyn Brown

Since 2013 is going to be a boring election year, with a number of uncontested races for citywide offices, let’s look ahead to 2014 in what could be an incredibly fun year for politics, at least for those of us covering them.

Let’s just assume Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines opts to run for retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’ seat. He should. Since former Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced that he’s not seeking the office, Daines would be the clear frontrunner out of the gate. That leaves Montana’s lone U.S. House seat open and attractive to a number of local Republicans.

Three former or current Flathead lawmakers have expressed interest in running for U.S. House if Daines chooses to take aim at the Senate. And if each of them actually decide to seek the office, they will be part of what may shape up as another crowded Republican primary in a statewide election.

The potential local candidates include Kalispell Sen. Jon Sonju; former Whitefish Sen. Ryan Zinke; and Bigfork Rep. Scott Reichner. All three men are relatively well-known among GOP circles, but their statewide name recognition varies a bit.

Zinke was first elected to the state Senate in 2008. The former Navy SEAL, who refers to himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” ran as lieutenant governor on Neil Livingstone’s ticket in his failed bid for governor. Livingstone’s colorful biography, which read like that of an international man of mystery, failed to win over the state’s voters.

Sonju served in the Montana House of Representatives and was elected to the state Senate in 2011. But, like Zinke, he is perhaps most well-known statewide for running for lieutenant governor in 2012. Sonju and his running mate, Rick Hill, won the Republican primary for governor before losing to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in the general election.

Reichner may have to work the hardest to get his name out there. He has served three terms in the state House and is well-liked among his peers. He spearheaded the successful overhaul of the state’s workers’ compensation system, considered the most important jobs bill of the 2011 Legislative Session.

Along with three Flathead lawmakers, the two Republicans who have announced their intentions to run for U.S. Senate, Missoula Rep. Champ Edmunds and former Billings’ Sen. Corey Stapleton, may also choose to run for the House seat.

GOP candidates in the state have been hurt in the past by contentious primaries. But no Democrats have emerged so far to compete for either the Senate or House seats.

Perhaps even more interesting in 2014 will be the race for the state Senate seat that Sonju is vacating. He has endorsed current Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel to replace him, but Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher has also announced she is running.

“That primary will be one that everyone has their eyes on,” Sonju said in a recent interview.

Despite being a political unknown at the time, Fisher won the mayor’s race in 2007 with 63 percent of the vote. She’s leaving office after one term with the city’s finances in much better shape than when she entered.

Blasdel, a soft-spoken and well-respected lawmaker from Somers, was elected speaker of the state House of Representatives in his fourth and final term in that chamber.

Both Fisher and Blasdel are in their mid-30s and are considered rising stars in their party. Contested Republican primaries for the state Legislature are not uncommon locally, but having two candidates with such wide name recognition square off is more rare.

As a rather mundane 2013 election approaches, the 2014 campaign has already begun.