With Montana’s slate of 2014 legislative candidates pegged down, a crowded field has emerged in the Flathead Valley with a handful of tight races leading up to the June 3 primary election.
Of the 15 contested House and Senate districts in Flathead, Lake and Lincoln counties, five of the races are without an incumbent in Montana’s first legislative race since it redrew the district lines statewide to reflect population shifts.
The prospect of a primary race in Senate District 5 evaporated when longtime state House Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, withdrew as a candidate. The reason for his surprise departure is unclear, and he did not return phone calls or emails.
In announcing his withdrawal from the race for the upper chamber, Reichner, known for leading state workers’ compensation reform efforts, leaves former Senate President Bob Keenan as the sole Republican candidate in the race.
Keenan, who termed out in 2006 after serving six years in the state senate, will face Democrat Daniel King of Bigfork in November’s general election.
“It’s all coming back to me. That’s what term limits were meant to do. You’re not meant to be sitting in the same chair for decades,” Keenan said. “I really feel exhilarated about getting back into the vernacular of the legislative process and figuring out what can get done. It’s been refreshing having the view from the outside looking in, and it gives me ambition to get back involved.”
Incumbent Verdell Jackson, who has held the seat in Kalispell since 2006, cannot run again because Montana holds senators to two four-year term limits.
Republican Jon Sonju, the would-be incumbent in Senate District 4 – and Rick Hill’s running mate in 2012 when the pair ran in the gubernatorial race – withdrew when he announced his plans to run for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Daines, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Sonju later abandoned those plans, leaving the local Senate seat open for what promises to be a close primary race.
Seeking to replace Sonju are Montana Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel and former Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher, both Republicans with strong name recognition in the Flathead Valley. The winner of the June 3 primary will square off against the lone Democrat, Elizabeth Cummings of Kalispell.
Downtown Kalispell’s House District 7 drew three Democrats and two Republicans. Former Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner and Ronalee Skees, the wife of former Whitefish Rep. Derek Skees, who has filed his candidacy for the Montana Public Service Commission, are both running as Republican candidates. Alex Schaeffer, Roxanna Brothers and Catie Henderson, an 18-year-old senior at Flathead High School, are running as Democrats.
Democrats have set their sights on retaking the majority in at least one chamber for the 2015 legislative session, with 100 House and 25 Senate seats up for election this year. Redistricting means many candidates will be campaigning in new areas, and Republican Sen. Ed Walker, of Billings, complained the new legislative maps skew in Democrats’ favor.
The Flathead Democratic Party fielded candidates in all legislative districts, which is never an easy job in this corner of Montana, is historically a Republican stronghold, particularly in a midterm election.
Dave Fern, chair of the Flathead Democratic Party, said the primary marks the first time that there have been 125 legislative openings – the most possible since senate races are staggered – in the state since 1972. He said the swollen field of candidates gives voters real options.
“We think it’s really important that people have choices and that we leave no seat empty. The Flathead is pretty Republican and of course we’d like to break that up and provide a little bit more of a balance,” Fern said.
Montana secretary of state data show more than one candidate in 40 Republican and 25 Democratic legislative primaries.
Five Flathead County incumbents are running unopposed, including Sheriff Chuck Curry and County Attorney Ed Corrigan.
March 10 was the deadline for candidates to enter local legislative races.
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