GOP Debate in Kalispell Kicks Off Primary Elections

By Beacon Staff

A slate of Republican legislative candidates squaring off in the June primary sparred over Medicaid expansion, tax reform, the water compact, and resource extraction at a debate in Kalispell on May 1, offering a glimpse at a bifurcated GOP party that will likely retain its majority status next session without bridging a widening rift within the party.

Although many of the candidates echoed a chorus of traditional conservative values as they railed against Obamacare and government intrusion, some distinguished themselves by attacking their own party’s willingness to compromise with Democrats, pointing to last session’s budget passage and decrying what they call a broken system in Helena while pledging to repair it if elected.

The field of candidates hailed from four House districts and one hotly contested Senate district in the Flathead Valley.

The primary race in Senate District 4 features a battle between House Speaker Mark Blasdel and former Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher, both of whom carry a high degree of name recognition and political savvy that poises them for a tight contest. The winner of the June 3 primary will face Democrat Elizabeth Cummings in the General Election.

The race between Blasdel and Fisher stands out among a half-dozen state Senate districts with contested Republican primaries this spring that feature competing factions within the party.

In the open SD 4 seat that encompasses much of Kalispell’s city center, Blasdel, of Somers, is more conservative than Fisher by a wide margin. Fisher, an attorney who works for Kalispell Regional Health Care, says Republicans should have supported a limited expansion of Medicaid last year, rather than rejecting it entirely. Blasdel, who characterizes his party as having moved too far to the left, says he expects Medicaid expansion to be a key issue in the race.

In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, the Medicaid morass in Montana has hindered thousands of low-income residents from receiving insurance.

Blasdel says the Republican party should maintain its traditional conservative values rather than soften its stances in order to pass a budget, but that the caucus needs to craft a clearer message of leadership.

The other Republican primary races in Flathead County include a contest in Whitefish’s House District 5 between Doug Adams and John Michael Myers, who did not attend the debate; a race between former Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner and Ronalee Skees in House District 7; and a race between Kalispell insurance agency owner Michael Hebert and orthodontist Al Olszewski in House District 11.

The debate took place at Sykes in Kalispell and was moderated by Jayson Peters of the Flathead County Republicans.

The debate also featured a trio of candidates vying for western Montana’s seat on the Public Service Commission – Derek Skees, Brad Johnson and John Campbell – and Clerk of Recorder candidates Debbie Pierson, Char Terry Sherman and Rebekah “Becky” Eslick Savelle.

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