Young and Unorthodox, Flathead GOP Candidates Mount Challenges on Dems

In House Districts 3 and 5, first-time Republican candidates vie for only two Democratic seats

By Tristan Scott
Taylor Rose, candidate for House District 3, speaks during the Glacier Country Pachyderm Club's meeting on Sept. 16. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

House District 3

In the Republican stronghold of Flathead County, it’s become an election-year anomaly for Democrats to win a bid for state political office, which is just one reason the tight race in House District 3 between incumbent Democrat Zac Perry and Republican newcomer Taylor Rose is drawing considerable attention.

Perry, 38, a self-proclaimed blue-dog Democrat from Columbia Falls, was elected in 2014 in a district that covers the communities of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, Martin City, and Coram — typically characterized as one of the most conservative house districts in the state.

Rose, 29, is a social conservative running to unseat Perry. He has gained attention in the region for his unorthodox platform, which aligns with traditional GOP values on some fronts, but also strays into less conventional territory on others.

Chief among the latter is his former involvement with the now-defunct organization Youth for Western Civilization (YWC), with which he was affiliated during his time attending college at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. YWC was a controversial anti-multiculturalism group that some human-rights advocacy organizations have called “radical right-wing” and accused of promoting a “white nationalist” agenda. And while Rose acknowledges the group leaned right of other conservative, issue-specific groups like the College Republicans, its members weren’t on the “radical fringe,” he said.

Still, liberal-leaning blogs in Montana and beyond have characterized Rose as a “white supremacist,” while advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Montana Human Rights Network say his stances opposing multiculturalism, mass immigration and refugee resettlement is soft-peddled, coded language for white nationalism.

Rose is quick to distance himself from those claims, which he calls baseless, instead saying that his work at YWC was geared toward preserving and defending the cultural values of Western civilization, and represent an ideology that he dismisses as analogous to white nationalism and consistent with his pro-Christian beliefs and his conviction that “the rising tide of Islam in the West is a threat to the values of Christianity.”

“I am not affiliated with white supremacist groups or leaders,” Rose said. “To say otherwise is slanderous. YWC was a cultural group, not a racist group. We defined Western civilization by the classic definition of ancient Greeks and Romans, and we were pro-Christian. We did not say it was exclusively white. We were also very critical of Islam, but that is an ideological issue, not a racial issue. I can promise you that Liberty University would not have tolerated a white power group on its campus.”

But Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said her group has serious concerns about Rose’s candidacy, as well as the insidious nature with which beliefs like his are creeping into mainstream electoral politics, a rhetoric she believes has been elevated by the ascendancy of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who continues to enjoy popularity despite a flood of incendiary remarks that have been characterized as undisguised racism and sexism.

“I see Taylor Rose and his candidacy as one of the most overt examples of white supremacy moving into the political sphere in Montana right now,” she said. “I think Taylor Rose’s candidacy is no different than David Duke (formerly of the Ku Klux Klan) running for the Legislature, and I think people would be correct to make that comparison.”

Rose called the notion that he could be compared to someone like Duke “preposterous,” and noted that his support from mainstream GOP candidates and elected officials like U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, as well as his endorsement by the Flathead County Republican Party, is proof that the accusations don’t add up.

“I was open about my past involvement with YWC, and I was vetted by the Republican Party,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I am a mainstream candidate, but I’m not on the fringe either. The minute you reject multiculturalism, you become a target for the left, and that is what’s happened here.”

In addition to the endorsement from Zinke, Rose has received campaign contributions from Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and state Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, as well as endorsements from groups like the National Rifle Association and the Montana Family Foundation, both of which are conservative stalwarts in mainstream Montana politics.

He also served as a regional field director for the Montana Republican Party in 2014, when Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines was running for election, and in 2015 worked in the Montana Legislature as an assistant to the GOP majority in the senate.

According to Rivas, the fact that Rose has drawn support from and served in the state’s mainstream GOP channels is evidence of a paradigm shift in electoral politics, triggered in part by Trump’s candidacy.

“None of us predicted that we were going to have a presidential ticket that elevated hate rhetoric to this level, and giving (Rose) entrée to one of the two mainstream political parties in the state and essentially turning their heads and shrugging at his white supremacist activity is deeply unsettling,” she said. “This is exactly how marginal ideas make their way into the mainstream.”

Perry, who has remained on the sidelines as reports about Rose’s past activities crop up on the Internet, said his campaign is focused on core values like rebuilding the economy, job growth, access to health care, and access to public lands.

Still, he said he has concerns about Rose’s past activities.

“I think that his previous affiliations are concerning and certainly some of his activities and background is concerning, and I would just encourage voters to do their own research,” Perry said. “We are focused on what we bring to the table.”

As for Rose, he believes he’s breathing new energy into the state GOP, and his candidacy is complemented by another young contender’s bid in a nearby district.

“There is a reason that the two most contested races in the Flathead include conservative millennials,” Rose said. “The Republican party needs a fresh new face.”

House District 5

The open seat for House District 5 — which covers Whitefish and the surrounding area, and is currently occupied by Democratic Rep. Ed Lieser, who is not running for reelection after a single term — features a race between longtime Whitefish School Board trustee Dave Fern and recent Whitefish High School graduate Chet Billi.

The race is interesting on several levels, not the least of which is Billi’s youthfulness, which, at 18, he has held up as a key strength in order to freshen the face of the state Republican Party.

Before he entered the race for HD 5, Billi made headlines by launching a ballot initiative that would have allowed public school teachers with a concealed weapons permit to carry a weapon inside a school classroom.

At the time, Billi, then a junior at Whitefish High School, said he believed more guns would make schools safer places, and would be instrumental in preventing school shootings. Billi said he believes tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in 2012 could have been prevented had a staff member been armed.

A longtime gun enthusiast, Billi said he came up with the idea of a citizen’s ballot initiative and submitted the proposal with the Secretary of State, but failed to gather the requisite 24,175 signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in the state. Instead, he gathered 30 signatures, and the initiative qualified in zero of the 34 legislative districts needed.

The defeat did little to stanch Billi’s enthusiasm for joining the political process, however, and he announced his decision to join the race for the liberal-leaning HD 5 a year ago.

With 24 years on the Whitefish School Board, including chairmanship and serving on the Montana School Board Association, Fern is running to replace Lieser, and held up his seven terms as a school board trustee as evidence of his high level of understanding about public school funding.

Fern said as a school board member, he was surprised by Billi’s conviction that allowing guns in schools would serve as more of a deterrent to school shootings than gun-free zones and crisis-response protocols.

“As a school board member, I did have concerns,” Fern said.

Mail-in ballots go out Oct. 14 and the election is Nov. 8.