Don ‘K’ Enters Race for Montana Senate

Whitefish businessman announces candidacy for Senate District 3, will face Majority Leader Rep. Keith Regier in June primary

By Tristan Scott
Don Kaltschmidt, pictured at his dealership in Whitefish on Jan. 30, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Prominent Whitefish businessman Don “K” Kaltschmidt has announced his bid for the Montana Legislature, entering a contested Republican race for a senate district that encompasses the resort community.

Earlier this year, Republican House Majority Leader Keith Regier announced his candidacy for the open seat in Senate District 3 after reaching term limits in the House.

Kaltschmidt’s entry into the race sets the stage for a face-off in the primary election between two conservative Republicans with contrasting backgrounds.

A March 14 deadline for candidates to file their declarations for the June 7 primary election is quickly approaching, and so far no Democrats have filed for the seat.

Kaltschmidt, 59, owns Don K Chevrolet Chrysler Subaru in Whitefish and touts his background as a community and business leader, as well as his ability to hold conservative principles in the liberal-leaning community of Whitefish as testament to his strength of leadership and diplomacy.

Senate District 3 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.

Regier represents House District 4, an area south of Columbia Falls characterized by a deep conservative streak.

Kaltschmidt, who party affiliates have considered a GOP darling for years, said he feels well-positioned for an earnest run at the statehouse after investing decades mounting a successful business.

“For years the party has been asking me to run, but I haven’t been able to put my affairs in order in a way that affords me the time to invest in this level of public service,” Kaltschmidt told the Beacon. “I got through the recession, I added dealerships, and we have built a very successful business. Next month I am going to turn 60, my sons are tending to the business, and I am ready to give back to the community and to the state.”

Kaltschmidt grew up in Kalispell and, after serving in the Marine Corps, returned to the Flathead Valley. In 1985, Kaltschmidt was hired as the sales manager at Jim Dowen Chevrolet in Whitefish. He was promoted to general manager, and in 1991 became the sole owner.

By 2011, after several bumpy years, he expanded to include Subaru, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram. The recession was a brutal time at the dealership, he said. He stopped taking a salary in 2008 and 2009, and the company was down to 28 employees.

Today, the dealership boasts 102 employees, and Kaltschmidt said his business acumen provides him a unique ability to negotiate with and appeal to both sides of the political aisle in Helena.

“That’s a unique strength in today’s political climate. The Republican party is very strong here in the Flathead. We have a pretty big tent. But I think our weakness is that we tend to fight within ourselves when we shouldn’t,” Kaltschmidt said. “It has been a blessing for me to be a conservative, both fiscally and socially, and to live and work in a progressive community like Whitefish, which is the Flathead Valley’s only blue spot. Working with people who hold different opinions has been a very big growing experience for me. I know how to work with the other side, and I know how to get deals done. That has really helped me as I move forward and I think I can help with some of that divisiveness in Helena.”

The divisiveness was particularly evident during the 2015 Montana Legislature, when Republican infighting stymied the party’s efforts to prevail on almost every front.

Under Regier’s leadership, and by a slim margin, lawmakers in the House voted down Senate Bill 416, a $150 million infrastructure bill, and voted to adjourn for the session.

Kaltschmidt said the party’s failure to agree on a compromise package that would have created jobs and led to badly needed building projects was disappointing.

“I thought that our party didn’t look very good last session,” Kaltschmidt said. “The two sides couldn’t come together and I don’t think they were that far apart. And that is what I am good at. I have been doing that my entire life. I believe that I could have done better, and that with my leadership ability, I can reach out to people and strike an agreement.”

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 earlier this year.

Regier noted that moderate Republicans 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.

Acknowledging that he still has a lot to learn about the political process, Kaltschmidt said he’s also not a novice and has earned the backing of prominent Republicans like U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and former Secretary of State Bob Brown.

Prior to the redistricting of the state’s legislative boundaries, Whitefish was located in Senate District 2, a seat Zinke held from 2009-2011.

The last Democrat to hold the seat was Dan Weinberg, who served form 2005-2009.

Kaltschmidt said he is pro-life and a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, and as a member of and former bishop at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Whitefish, holds strong Christian values.

He said his main departure from the GOP platform is his stance on conservation issues, which he said are important to him, his family and his community.

“The one area in which I am a little more progressive is conservation,” he said. “I am a big Glacier National Park guy, a big state lands guy. I love the outdoors and am committed to the environment. That said, I grew up as the son of a logger, and I certainly think that we should be able to harvest our trees responsibly.”

Former Montana House Rep. Scott Reichner, of Bigfork, is helping to manage Kaltschmidt’s campaign. Bea DePratu, the widow of former state Sen. Bob DePratu – who also found business success in the automobile industry – is serving as Kaltschmidt’s treasurer.