Loaded Primaries

By Beacon Staff

It’s difficult to get excited about a June 3 primary election. There is much more to look forward to this time of year than voting for one of those semi-familiar names on one of those signs littering the sides of our roadways. After all, summer is on its way. Can we just tune out the politicians until fall’s general election?

We can, but probably shouldn’t.

Flathead County votes overwhelmingly Republican. In 2012, Mitt Romney doubled up President Barack Obama, 64 percent to 32 percent. Rick Hill bested eventual gubernatorial winner Bullock by 20 percentage points. And Sen. Jon Tester, who was reelected, lost the Flathead to Congressman Denny Rehberg by 18 points. In all, locals cast votes in about two-dozen statewide and local races and Republicans prevailed in all of them except for one.

Democrat Ed Lieser, who must be lonely when he travels to Helena, was elected to the Senate District 4 House seat, which encompasses Whitefish, with 54 percent of the vote. You get the idea. Our primaries determine the vast majority of our seat holders, from commissioners to lawmakers. That’s often why you’ll hear about Democrats crossing over to vote in the GOP primary and urging others to do the same.

Regardless, turnout in primaries here is often pathetic, just like everywhere else. In 2012, just 34 percent of registered voters in Flathead County turned out in the primary, and that was an election year. In the 2010 primary, voter turnout was 28 percent.

Now compare that to the turnout in the last two general election cycles, where the majority of races here are already determined – 53 percent in 2010 and 72 percent in 2012. Low enthusiasm for primary elections is by no means unique to the Flathead; it’s just that there is more incentive to vote here, especially this year, especially if you’re a Republican.

The GOP side is loaded with contested primaries, many of which will determine how that party will look for years to come. Much of the division is fallout from last year’s legislative session when a faction of the party split with its more conservative leadership to pass a state budget with the minority Democrats.

An example of that rift has played out on our editorial pages as Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich has criticized his fellow party members, specifically Rep. Jesse O’Hara of Great Falls, for “backroom political wheeling” with Democrats. Meanwhile, O’Hara has countered that the likes of Wittich are extremists “stealing the Republican brand, moving Montana toward D.C. gridlock and chaos.”

This primary matters, as there are several local races that could determine what kind of brand Republican voters want. There are also big names squaring off, like former Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher and Montana Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel in the race for Kalispell’s Senate District 4.

The packed GOP primary field for the U.S. House should be interesting. While former Whitefish Rep. Ryan Zinke leads the money race, Glendive Sen. Matt Rosendale has enjoyed support from conservatives. Meanwhile, former gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill has endorsed Billings Sen. Elsie Arntzen.

Also, incumbent Flathead County Commissioner Cal Scott faces a formidable primary challenger in former Whitefish City council member Phil Mitchell. The commission is the most powerful governing body in the area and hasn’t included a Democrat since 2010 when Pam Holmquist received nearly twice as many votes as incumbent Democratic County Commissioner Joe Brenneman.

If that’s not enough to get you to the polls, not much will. And while it’s more fun to enjoy the sun than pay attention to politics in June, there’s a lot of candidates and a lot at stake this year. So, tune in.