House District 3: Incumbent to Face Self-Styled ‘Moderate’ Challenger

Republican voters to choose between incumbent Braxton Mitchell and challenger Lorena Wood

By Mike Kordenbrock
The state capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

After his first term as a representative in the Montana Legislature for House District 3, incumbent and Columbia Falls resident Braxton Mitchell is facing a primary challenge from Lorena Wood, a retired social worker who lives in Martin City and has defined herself as a more moderate choice for Republican voters.  

Mitchell, who will turn 22 later this month, in an email to the Beacon cast himself as “the only conservative” option in the primary and said he is running for re-election in order to ensure the priorities of people in the district are “at the forefront next session,” and that he wants to tackle issues including “infrastructure, property taxes, protecting the Second Amendment, and getting government off our backs.”

In explaining why she chose to run, Wood said she is the “moderate Republican” choice and that her opponent “doesn’t seem to be representing our district adequately”

Continuing, Wood said that she believes the three bills that Mitchell had sponsored last session “seemed to sort of miss what the community really needs.”

Those three bills included one calling for the state Senate and House of Representatives to designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. The Associated Press reported that after a hearing on the bill 31 Republican lawmakers who had co-signed as sponsors requested that their names be removed from the sponsor list. The bill initially had 53 co-sponsors among Montana lawmakers.

Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican representing Yellowstone County, told the AP at the time he asked to be removed from the list after Mitchell declined to add other groups to the domestic terrorism designation.

Another bill would have allowed people to use a firearm to kill an injured game animal within city limits. Mitchell’s third bill, HB 314, would have required the Montana Public Service Commission to consider the economic impacts at the state and local level when evaluating the acquisition, sale, expansion, or closure of a coal-fired power plant. 

All three bills failed, according to the Montana Free Press Capitol Tracker, a website which compiles information about the state Legislature.

 In response to Wood’s belief that his sponsored bills didn’t represent the district adequately, Mitchell said by email that she is “not a legitimate candidate and odds are someone in the democrat party put her up to this.”

He also called Wood “foreign to the district,” which he said is reflected by a lack of support for her campaign and a disparity between their campaign fundraising. In his most recent campaign finance filing with information through April 15, Mitchell reported having received a total of $5,456, with expenditures totaling $2,326 and $3,130 banked. Wood on the other hand had received $1,228, spent $1,168 and banked $60 through April 15.

Mitchell also criticized Wood for initially filing to run as an independent, saying it was to “hide her liberal agenda” and he pointed to endorsements he has received from conservative groups including the Flathead County Republican Party, Flathead County Republican Women and the National Rifle Association.

Wood, age 55, originally grew up in Wyoming, and has been living in Martin City for two years and lived in Lakeside before that, she said. She said that she believes she grew up in a conservative value system similar to that of House District 3, and pointed to the fact that her family had been living in Montana for four generations before she was born in Wyoming. As for her decision to initially file as an independent, Wood said she had wanted to circumvent what she saw as brewing conflict in the Republican Party, but that a friend later advised her that it wouldn’t help her candidacy to run as an independent.

“We need someone who is willing and able to apply critical thinking to the problems that proposed legislation hopes to mitigate. I am clearly that person in this race,” Wood said. “It is my view that Braxton is a figurehead voter for an extreme right faction within our party.”

If elected, Wood said she would look for innovative ways to support small businesses by promoting affordable housing in order to address both labor shortages and an affordable housing crisis. She also said she would be a strong advocate for the Second Amendment, saying that she would want to highlight its importance as a means of ensuring national security. Additionally, Wood said she would want to fight for “the use of public lands with attention to energy independence for our country while maintaining the health and productivity of our public lands.”

Overall, Wood said that from her time as a social worker she has come to believe that individual responsibility should be the goal of social policies, and that social policies should “help people in need” but should also “empower people to engage in the community in a meaningful way.”

 Last session Mitchell was assigned to the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, the House Taxation Committee and the House Education Committee. If re-elected, Mitchell said he wants to continue the work he started last session, and that he would like to get on policy committees including State Administration, Transportation, Federal Relations, and Energy and Telecommunications. “We need new infrastructure that will serve us in 50 years, nuclear power, and some major election security reforms,” Mitchell said in an email. He said that he has worked for his family business Vandevanter Meats and Montana Jerky Company, runs a car rental company and is a part-time political consultant.

Mitchell also has experience as an ambassador for Turning Point USA, a nonprofit organization geared towards young conservatives that also maintains a “Professor Watchlist” to identify college instructors “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” An ambassador application form on the Turning Point USA website says that “Since 2012, we have been fighting the culture war on college campuses, and now we’re expanding our army of freedom fighters to social media.”  

Asked about achievements from his first term he’d like to highlight, Mitchell said he was proud of both not being afraid to be the deciding vote on a bill, and not being afraid to be the only person to vote no. He characterized himself as principled in casting his votes and someone who won’t “blow with the wind to earn someone’s good favor.”