Flathead Primaries Taking Shape

Candidate filings trickling in for contested races in Flathead, Lake counties

By Tristan Scott
Sen. Keith Regier, left, during the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena. Beacon File Photo

The smoke has barely cleared following a divisive 2015 Montana Legislature, and the primary election is still more than seven months away, but already the prospect for political fireworks is emerging in several contested races throughout the Flathead Valley.

With a March 14, 2016, deadline for candidates to file their declarations for the June 7 primary election, there’s plenty of time for the political landscape to shift. But recent developments have raised the specter of a few fiery contests as candidates file their official C-1 declarations to begin raising campaign cash.

In Senate District 6, which runs from Polson to Kalispell and includes Flathead Lake, incumbent Sen. Janna Taylor, R-Dayton, has announced she will not seek re-election. Former Republican Sen. Carmine Mowbray has thrown her name into the mix, while first-term Republican Rep. Al Olszewski, of Kalispell, has publicly stated his intention to run to take her place, with Taylor’s support.

Olszewski hasn’t yet filed his statement of candidacy, but if he runs it will highlight a familiar schism in the state Republican Party’s nuanced political spectrum and pit a more conservative lawmaker, Olszewski, against a more moderate Republican, Mowbray.

Meanwhile, a termed-out Rep. Keith Regier, the current Republican House majority leader from Kalispell, has filed to run for Senate District 3, which is currently occupied by a termed-out Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, who is precluded from running for Senate.

In Montana, House members may serve four two-year terms in any 16-year period, while Senate members may serve two four-year terms in any 16-year period.

In his tenure in the Senate, Tutvedt and other moderate, or so-called “responsible” Republicans, became well-established whipping posts for the more conservative GOP, which launched a drumfire of ire down the middle of the Republican road.

Mowbray aligns with Tutvedt on the political scale, and both have been prominent opponents of “dark money” and have worked to reform the state’s campaign finance laws. In 2012, Mowbray narrowly lost to Taylor in a bitter primary, 1,630 votes to 1,792. Crossover voting was a significant factor in that close race, and could figure into the 2017 primary as well.

On the prospect of Regier filling the senate seat he’s occupied for eight years, Tutvedt said the House majority leader would have to answer to voters on his “obstructionist” voting record.

Last session, Tutvedt and 18 other Republican lawmakers were targeted by Republican leadership for voting with Democrats on new laws that added thousands more people to government-subsidized health care, settled water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation and required more financial disclosures in elections.

Those new laws were born of collaboration and compromise, Tutvedt said, while other major spending bills were hamstrung by hardline conservatives like Regier, who voted against the state’s sprawling budget-and-infrastructure package, which ultimately failed by a single vote.

“Keith’s going to have to own his ‘no’ vote on infrastructure, he is going to have to own his ‘no’ vote on dark money, and his ‘no’ votes on the water compact and Medicaid expansion,” Tutvedt said. “He’s definitely from the far right of the party.”

Regier defends his voting record, and said he stood by his caucus in opposing Bullock’s infrastructure bill and others because they didn’t include enough compromise.

“The idea that there has ever been a true compromise is fantasy,” Regier told the Beacon.

Regier noted that moderate Republicans had defected from the conservative bloc to pass major legislation on issues like Medicaid expansion and the Flathead tribal water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana, compromising the state GOP’s values.

Although term limits rule out Tutvedt’s running again for the State Senate, he’s eligible to run for a seat in the Montana House of Representatives. He could file for the GOP nomination in House District 4, where term limits prevent Regier from running again. He could also run in House District 11, which Olszewski is vacating to run for Senate.

“I’m not ruling anything out. I’m reflecting on it, it’s on my mind,” Tutvedt told the Beacon.

Regier represents House District 4, an area south of Columbia Falls characterized by a deep conservative streak that Tutvedt would likely struggle to alloy to his base.

A few Democrats have also filed to run in the Republican-dominated Flathead.

In House District 5, which covers Whitefish and the surrounding area, David Fern, a longtime Whitefish school board trustee, is running to replace Democrat Ed Lieser.

Fern said his seven terms as a school board trustee has given him a high level of understanding about public school funding and made him a skilled negotiator.

“I’m a consensus builder,” Fern said. “I respect other view points, and by making competing points of view part of the negotiating process we have settled some major issues.”

Although no candidates have filed to challenge Fern, Whitefish teenager Chet Billi has stated publicly that he will file as a Republican when he turns 18 later this year.

Billi made headlines in June when he brought forward a citizen-initiated ballot proposal that would allow teachers from elementary school through college to carry concealed handguns if they have permits.

Freshman Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse, has filed to run again for House District 3, and political newcomer Taylor Rose, a Republican, has announced he will challenge.

Democrat Lynn Stanley has filed to run in House District 7 against incumbent Republican Rep. Frank Garner.

No Democrats have filed to run in Senate District 3, House District 4 or House District 11.

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