Republican Duels Top Legislative Primaries

Numerous state races feature GOP contests, including the Flathead Valley’s Senate District 3

By Tristan Scott
Reps. Keith Regier, left, and Mike Cuffe discuss a bill on the House floor last year. Beacon File Photo

While next month’s primary is expected to be mostly uneventful for top statewide political contests, including the governor’s race, election filings have set the stage for a swell of dueling Republican contests, which promises to generate some fireworks in the Flathead Valley.

Signs of political faulting within the Montana GOP cropped up two years ago, when a spate of Republican-versus-Republican skirmishes blossomed between so-called “responsible Republicans” and the GOP’s more conservative faction.

That same dynamic will play out again this year at the ballot box – both statewide and in the Flathead Valley, where several moderates have risen up to challenge hardline Republicans in the June 7 primary.

Of the 125 legislative seats up for election in Montana, 40 of them feature contested Republican races, many of them tough matchups between conservative and moderate candidates.

The spate of contested races mirrors the election cycle two years ago, but this time moderate Republicans appear to be mounting an offensive.

Last legislative session, moderate Republicans splintered from their party to collaborate with Democrats on key issues, including expanding Medicaid and ratifying the contentious water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and a majority of Democrats championed those measures, which advanced solely due to support from Republican moderates, who went toe-to-toe with the party’s more ideological purists.

Based on this year’s election filings, and depending on the outcome of the primaries, the divisiveness may well characterize the make-up of the party in 2017.

Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said the high number of intraparty rivalries this election cycle points to Republicans “fighting for the soul of their party.”

In the Flathead, there are three primary election contests of note, all of them Republican. Two are for the state Legislature, and one is for county commissioner.

Jayson Peters, chairman of the Flathead County Republican Party, said the contentious cycle is evidence of a “healthy competitiveness” in the local races, rather than a cutthroat offensive to temper the GOP’s more conservative faction.

State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls who is being challenged in the primary election by Glenn Ferren, a Republican from St. Regis, characterized her party’s schism as “rugged individualism in action.”

Topping the list of must-watch races is the battle in Senate District 3, which extends northwest from Kalispell, including West Valley, Whitefish and Olney, and comprises House District 5 and House District 6. This is an open seat because its current sitting senator, Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell – the veritable poster-boy of responsible Republican-ism – cannot run again due to term limits.

One Democrat, Melissa Hartman of Whitefish, has filed for the seat, while two prominent Republicans will square off in the primary race.

The Republican candidates are Montana House Majority Leader Keith Regier, who currently represents House District 4, where term limits preclude him from running (and for which his son, Matt Regier, has filed), and political rookie Don Kaltschmidt, best known as the entrepreneur who developed Don K Chevrolet Chrysler Subaru, a Whitefish business that he has built into one of the Flathead’s leading automobile dealerships.

Despite having never held elected office, Kaltschmidt is displaying sharp political acumen as he unveils his first batch of television ads, and he has long been considered by party affiliates as a GOP darling.

Kaltschmidt touts his experience as a business and community 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.

While he and Regier are both conservative Republicans, Regier is far more politically experienced than his rival and showed little appetite to compromise last session.

Under Regier’s leadership, when Republican infighting derailed the party’s efforts to prevail on almost every front, lawmakers in the House voted down Gov. Bullock’s Senate Bill 416, a $150 million infrastructure bill.

Regier stands by the move to stymie the bill, and was critical of his moderate colleagues who defected from the conservative bloc to pass Medicaid expansion and the Flathead tribal water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana, which he said compromised the state GOP’s values.

Other Primary Battles

In House District 11, another GOP primary battle is heating up between Jean Barragan, of Lakeside, and Kalispell’s Derek Skees, who served one term as a state representative from House District 4 before being defeated in races for state auditor in 2012 and the Public Service Commission in 2014. The winner faces Democrat Eileen Bach Bech of Kalispell.

Barragan is a former School District 5 board member, and she is running for a large, deeply conservative district located north and west of Flathead Lake. The seat is open because Rep. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, filed papers to run for Senate District 6, where he would replace retiring Republican state Sen. Janna Taylor, of Dayton. He’ll face Polson Democrat Rolf Harmsen in the November election.

Skees, who served in the Montana Legislature from 2011 to 2013 as a representative serving the Whitefish area, has been campaigning aggressively for the seat.

Meanwhile, Senate District 7 features primaries in both major parties. Ferren is challenging state Sen. Fielder, of Thompson Falls, for the Republican nod, while Mark Sheets, also of Thompson Falls, and Elizabeth Retallick, of Hot Springs, both want the Democratic nomination.

In House District 1, either of two Libby Republicans, Steve Gunderson or Bill Clark, will face Democrat Steve Haarstick, of Troy, in the general election.

House District 5 would have been ground for a primary battle between two Whitefish Republicans, Jack Kearns and 18-year-old Whitefish High School senior Chet Billi, who wanted to go up against Whitefish Democrat Dave Fern in November. However, Kearns has been removed as a candidate, so Billi and Fern will both advance to the general election.

In House District 10, Mark Noland and Laura Hartland, both Republicans from Bigfork, were set to square off in a primary battle, but Hartland was also removed as a candidate. Noland will face Democrat George Dickenson, of Bigfork, in the general election.

House District 13 has a primary contest on the Democratic side, as former Sanders County Republican Central Committee vice chairman Gerald Cuvillier has filed as a Democrat, and will take on Debra Achatz in the primary. Both candidates live in Trout Creek, and the winner faces incumbent Bob Brown of Thompson Falls.

On May 12 at 7 p.m., the Kalispell City Council will host a forum for candidates running in contested primary races in the Kalispell area – Senate District 3, House District 11, and the Flathead County Commission race between Republican incumbent Pam Holmquist and challenger Tim Harmon.

The forum will be held in council chambers at Kalispell City Hall, located at 201 First Avenue East. The forum will be broadcast on Kalispell’s public access channel (cable channel 190) live and then repeated at varying times leading up to the primary election in June.

Northwest Montana races lacking primary contests:

Senate District 2, where Republican Dee Brown, the incumbent from Hungry Horse, will face Democrat Cody Casaza, of Columbia Falls, this fall.

Senate District 6: Rolf Harmsen, a Democrat from Polson, and Republican Albert Olszewski, of Kalispell, advance to the general election.

House District 2: Incumbent Mike Cuffe, a Republican from Eureka, faces Democrat David McGarry, of Libby.

House District 3: Voters will still have two choices in November: Incumbent Zac Perry of Hungry Horse, a Democrat, or Republican Taylor Rose of Columbia Falls. Libertarian candidate Shawn Guymon was removed.

House District 4: Matt Regier, the Republican from Kalispell, faces Democrat Deborah Gentry, of Columbia Falls.

House District 6: Democrat Lisa Morrow of Kalispell will challenge incumbent Carl Glimm, a Republican from Kila.

House District 7: Republican incumbent Frank Garner, of Kalispell, is opposed by Democrat Lynn Stanley, also of Kalispell.

House District 8: C. Paige Rappleye, a Kalispell Democrat, will go up against incumbent Republican Steve Lavin, of Kalispell.

House District 9: Incumbent Republican Randy Brodehl, of Kalispell, and Democrat Brittany MacLean, of Whitefish, are set to square off in November.

House District 12: Democrat Susan Evans, of Polson, will challenge incumbent Republican Greg Hertz, also of Polson.

Regular voter registration for the primary election closes May 9, with late registration beginning the following day; regular voter registration for the general election closes Oct. 11, with late registration beginning Oct. 12.