In the Historically Red Badrock Canyon, Three-Way House Race Takes Shape

Democrat Steve Paugh and independent Colton Little hope to oust incumbent Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell, who has made a name for himself as a high-profile Gen-Z conservative

By Denali Sagner
The sun rises through smoke from the Ridge Fire over the South Fork Saloon in Martin City on Aug. 4, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Voters in Hungry Horse, Martin City, Coram and Helena Flats will have a choice between three candidates for Montana House this fall as a Republican, Democrat and Independent vie to represent a conservative legislative district.

Democrat Steve Paugh and Independent Colton Little are pitching a fight to oust two-term Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell, who has made a name for himself in Montana politics as a staunch Gen-Z conservative. Mitchell carried eight successful bills through the Legislature in 2023, including the creation of a new state veterans cemetery in Columbia Falls and the revision of education laws to mandate financial literacy education.

Most notably, Mitchell introduced a bill that barred minors from attending drag shows and restricted drag performances in public places. A federal judge blocked the bill last fall, citing First Amendment violations and “anti-LGBTQ+ animus.”

Mitchell feels confident in his chances to secure a third term in the Legislature. The newly drawn House District 5 encompasses Hungry Horse, Martin City, Coram, Helena Flats and the rural communities around U.S. Highway 2 and the airport. It’s an area that has traditionally swung Republican in electoral contests. The district in 2020 favored Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte with 69% of the vote, former President Donald Trump with 71.5% of the vote and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines with 70.4% of the vote.

Mitchell told the Beacon that it “should be no problem” to win reelection.

Despite the incumbent’s confidence, both Paugh and Little believe voters want an alternative. The Democrat and Independent describe themselves as pragmatists who will cut through dominant narratives of social politics, focusing on the issues that matter most: housing, healthcare, taxes and education.

A 23-year-old from Columbia Falls, Mitchell found himself in the political spotlight in 2018 after organizing a pro-gun rally at Columbia Falls High School following a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. He was first elected to the Montana Legislature in 2020 to represent House District 3, which included Columbia Falls and parts of the Badrock Canyon.

Following redistricting by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission last winter, Columbia Falls was split between House Districts 3 and 4, and the Badrock Canyon was slotted into House District 5. Mitchell is currently running to represent House District 5.

Mitchell works for his family’s business, Vandevanter Meats and Montana Jerky Company, and describes himself as a political consultant.

During his first term, Mitchell introduced three unsuccessful bills, including an attempt to designate ANTIFA as a terrorist organization in Montana and legislation that would allow individuals to shoot injured game within city limits.

Mitchell beat Democratic challenger Andrea Getts by 18 percentage points during a 2022 reelection campaign.

The legislator’s tenure during the 2023 legislative session was defined largely by the drag ban, which drew ire from civil rights groups and attention from national media outlets. Mitchell said the bill was “common sense legislation,” citing the 82 lawmakers who cosponsored the law.

Rep. Braxton Mitchell of Montana HD 3, pictured in Columbia Falls on March 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Asked about his accomplishments from the past session, Mitchell lauded the creation of the Columbia Falls veterans cemetery, as well as his financial literacy legislation.

“It’s really hard in the Legislature to actually do something for your community. Fortunately, we were able to get that bill through with pretty good support,” he said of the cemetery bill.

Looking ahead to a third term in Helena, Mitchell hopes to strengthen penalties for DUI fatalities, address rising property taxes, bolster financial literacy programs and expand opportunities for volunteer sheriff’s deputies to carry weapons.

“I don’t see anything impressive on his record,” Democratic candidate Paugh said of Mitchell.

Known in the Badrock Canyon as “Philly Steve,” Paugh is a 70 year-old retired businessman, former school board trustee and an organizer, competitor and announcer at the annual barstool ski races during Cabin Fever Days in Martin City.

Paugh moved to Martin City from Pennsylvania 15 years ago, following one of his sons who made the move to the Flathead. His affinity for Philadelphia sports teams has crowned him the Canyon’s “Philly Steve.”

The candidate considers himself a pragmatist and a listener, whose goals lie more in bridging the gap between Montana’s polarized political sects than implementing specific policy changes. He said he jumped in the race to try to dilute the legislative supermajority that Republicans garnered last session.

“Supermajority is not a practical way for democracies to proceed,” Paugh said.

He said the legislation put forth by Mitchell has been “nebulous and kind of not important.”

Steve Paugh, “Philly Steve,” House District 5 candidate, pictured at his home in Martin City on March 22, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Paugh, Mitchell said, “I’m not gonna recognize someone from Philadelphia who calls himself ‘Philly’ Steve as a credible candidate … I got a state veterans cemetery for my district. There are maybe eight legislators in the state who are able to go back home and say they got specific things done for their home districts. I passed legislation to mandate financial literacy instruction in public schools, that will benefit not just the young folks in my district, but young folks all across the state of Montana. I worked closely with our majorities and voted to get income and property tax rebates back to the people of my district and the people of Montana as a whole all while facing staunch Democrat opposition.”

Paugh believes in guarding access to public lands and supporting legislation that protects Second Amendment rights while curbing the risk of gun violence.

“I support the cops. I want them to be armed. I want the people who know how to handle the guns, to have the guns,” Paugh said, discussing the fear that many Americans feel with the proliferation of assault rifles in public spaces. “That is not the way we should feel as Americans … They’ll mark me anti-Second Amendment. I’m not.”

For a Democrat to win in the district, it will be an uphill battle. Paugh, however, a well-known member of the Badrock Canyon community, believes his history in the area and desire to build bridges will propel him electorally.

“I like meeting people,” he said. “I have a way of of engaging people in conversation, no matter who they are and where they’re living, and finding out a lot about things that are important to them.”

House District 5, pictured in orange. Map courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting.

Little is a Columbia Falls High School senior and 18 year-old Independent candidate. A Boy Scout, student council member and participant in Humanities Montana’s Democracy Project, Little said he’s always had a passion for civics.

As he followed the 2023 Legislature, he was disheartened by the bills brought by legislators, which he said, “many people don’t necessarily agree with.” He said that Mitchell’s proposed legislation skirted the real needs of his constituents, instead focusing on hot-button national issues.

“We should focus on what people here need,” the young candidate said. “Housing and education, our environment, whether or not we have all of our essential services running and funded, if our workers are taken care of.”

Alluding to the drag performance ban brought by Mitchell, he added, “I think we should have both civil liberties and religious freedoms, all those things. If we start taking some away, then we start eroding at all of them. We should protect that. Our focus should not be legislating that kind of specific moral belief.”

Mitchell said he considers Little’s candidacy illegitimate and that he is “a Democrat running as an Independent because the Democrats can’t win this district.”

Colton Little, candidate for Montana House District 5, pictured in Columbia Falls on March 8, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Despite his young age, Little believes he would bring an independent perspective and desire for compromise to Helena. He believes in protecting access to public lands, addressing Montana’s persistent housing crisis, increasing funding for education and reducing property taxes.

He also believes the Republican Party has left its constituents behind, making it even more important to offer voters another choice.

“Even though they see themselves as Republicans, and they’re voting for people who are labeled as Republicans, the party platform just hasn’t been tracking with what the people actually need,” Little said, describing “a lot of frustration” among Republican voters.

As an Independent candidate, Little will need to collect 182 signatures to appear on the ballot in November. The number of signatures is equal to 5% of the total votes cast for the successful candidate for the same office in the last general election.

If elected, Little believes he will be able to shake up the Legislature and deliver real results.

“I’m not stuck in my way of thinking,” he said. “I’m able to work with different groups of people. I’m still learning, I think just like all of us are. We haven’t really seen effective solutions put forward for a lot of these issues, so there’s really no reason to side with an establishment that hasn’t provided those.”

More information about the candidates running for Legislature in the Flathead and Tobacco valleys can be found here.

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Detailed maps of House District 5, pictured in orange. Maps courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting.