As the crowded primary campaigns inch closer to conclusion, it appears the candidates can now be divvied up into three camps: old-school conservative Flathead Republicans; far right anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown Republicans; and moderate Republicans who are accused by some members of their own party of being RINOs (or Republicans in name only).
It’s up to you to decipher which GOP candidate falls into which camp. Reading their various profiles and recent letters to the editor in support of their candidacies should provide some clues, even if those candidates may disagree with their respective characterizations.
Flathead County, with the exception of the more liberal-minded Whitefish, has long been a stronghold for conservative politics. Of the five Republicans running for the U.S. House seat in Montana’s newly created western district, four are from this area. Of the four Republicans running for the Public Service Commission District 5 seat, we produced three of them.
To be sure, this county is red. What’s different about this election compared to previous years, is the high number of Republicans who want to decide what shade of red it is. For example, incumbent Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist is running for reelection this year and being challenged by three opponents from her own party. There are no Democrats running for the office. The winner of the primary is the winner.
The commission race is not an outlier. There are several Republicans facing off in primaries for state House and Senate seats across the valley. House District 8 attracted an astonishing four candidates. Meanwhile, the primaries in House District 8 and House District 11 each have three Republicans.
One consequence of all these candidates running for office is the ongoing effort to expose which ones are card-carrying Republicans and which ones are lowly RINOs. But categorizing candidates’ views as conservative can be tricky, especially in the wake of the pandemic. Did Flathead County betray the party by taking measures to slow the spread of COVID? To some, it was the responsible thing to do. To others, the local lockdown was the antithesis to conservatism.
With so many contested races, I expect the turnout in the Republican primary to dwarf that of the Democratic primary, even more so than in the past when some members of the GOP argued Montana’s open primaries are susceptible to political chicanery. They’re not wrong. The numbers are especially lopsided in lower turnout midterm elections. Let’s rewind four years.
In 2018, 17,665 Flathead County residents voted in the Republican primary for county commission, compared to just 6,233 in the Democratic primary. That means a whopping 74% of ballots cast were for the GOP ticket.
Now let’s look at the general election that same year. To be sure, Republican Randy Brodehl coasted to victory, but it wasn’t nearly as lopsided as the primary would indicate. Brodehl garnered about 29,000 votes compared to Democrat Tom Clark’s 17,000. In other words, he won 63% to 37%. So, I think it’s fair to say about 10% of voters who filled out a GOP ballot subsequently supported a Democrat in the general election.
And with only one party fielding candidates for county commissioner this year, I would only expect those crossover votes to increase.
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