Early voting began last week to pick the party candidates for the fall’s general election. Come June 3, Democrats are as likely to nominate Sen. John Walsh and John Lewis to top the ballot as Republicans are to nominate Rep. Steve Daines and former state Sen. Ryan Zinke.
Primary elections are rightly open to all voters; just select a ballot. Gratefully, Montana does not register voters by party. Independents’ votes count.
Fewer voters are choosing to participate in June’s primary elections. At times, as few as a quarter of all eligible voters pick the candidates who advance to November’s general ballot. That’s not a lot of voters choosing the party candidates.
Statewide there are a couple dozen Legislative primary elections where a tea party-style candidate is pitted against a more Main Street Republican. In the Flathead more extreme candidates often win primary elections as moderates and independents simply don’t vote.
Democrats face younger and more progressive voters not turning out in primaries while moderate voters like teachers, firefighters, and rail workers often cast ballots.
The husband and wife tea party team of former state Rep. Derek Skees and political newcomer Ronalee Skees are running against notably more moderate Republican candidates like former Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner and PSC candidate John Campbell from Kalispell.
Republicans also choose between House Speaker Mark Blasdell and former Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher in the state Senate. In last year’s Montana Legislature, Speaker Blasdell squashed bills that used federal funds to pay for Medicaid expansion. That affected thousands of eligible people in places like Kalispell, Bigfork and Whitefish.
The federal funds would have paid for hospital services for sick people. Rural hospitals struggle paying for critical services provided to sick people who do not have private health insurance. Federal Medicaid funds help hospitals.
Fisher recently said that Republicans should have supported a limited expansion of Medicaid. Only one Flathead Republican, state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, supported a Montana-made solution for Medicaid. In the last Legislature, Tutvedt and Rep. Ed Lieser tried to allow thousands of people living in the Flathead simply to go to the doctors.
Citizens are currently putting the Medicaid healthcare question on the fall’s ballot. With the healthcare of 70,000 Montanans at risk, it’s hard to understand why so many Flathead Republican legislators are opposed to Medicaid and the federal money that helps local people and hospitals.
Half the states in the nation accept federal Medicaid expansion funds. These federal dollars create local jobs like nurses and care providers in rural places like Kalispell and Whitefish.
With last session’s Republican Senate leadership running for election in the House chamber this election cycle, it’s likely that Tutvedt will be returned to leadership. Hopefully voters choose legislators willing to work with Tutvedt and Lieser to help rural hospitals get basic healthcare to local people.
Across the state Republican primary voters will choose between a Tea Party-style candidate and the fix-it practicality offered by competing Main Street Republicans.
Next session, Tutvedt would work with other moderates like Sen. Llew Jones who sponsored the better school funding bill. Jones is also one of the couple dozen Republicans facing primary races across the state from Tea Party-style challengers.
In 2006, Blasdell beat former Rep. Bernie Olson in a Republican primary. Olson had the session prior angered GOP leadership by helping pass a state budget that funded public education at more reasonable levels.
In 2015, it will be the more moderate politicians like Tutvedt and Lieser who will get stuff done in Helena. The next Legislature faces big issues like property tax reappraisal, Medicaid expansion and early childhood education.
If moderate voters are interested in pragmatic fixes to complex state policy, it’s smart to cast a primary ballot on June 3.
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