How are Voters in the Flathead Feeling About the 2024 Election? 

“Dismayed,” “apprehensive,” and “good”: Flathead Valley voters on the issues that matter, the candidates that move them, and the biggest election cycle in Montana’s recent history

By Denali Sagner
Voters pictured in the Flathead Valley in April 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In six months, voters across Montana will head to the polls as the state finds itself embroiled in one of the most consequential election cycles in recent history.

In addition to a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — a matchup that 45% of voters believe is “bad for the country” — Montanans in November are set to elect a U.S. senator and two representatives, a governor, two Supreme Court justices, a secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general, state auditor, Public Service Commission members, statewide legislators, county commissioners and city officials. 

There’s a lot at stake. Montana continues to navigate a housing shortage, extreme weather and climate concerns, inflation and property tax spikes, rising homelessness and continued fights over conservation and access to public lands

Montanans in 2022 elected the first Republican legislative supermajority since 1975, sending 102 Republicans and 48 Democrats to Helena to serve in the state Legislature alongside a Republican governor, secretary of state and attorney general. This cycle, however, redistricting has reshaped the legislative map, creating a landscape that may be more competitive for the minority party. Despite losing ground with Montana voters, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on frustration over property taxes and fatigue with hot-button culture war issues. 

Beyond the state Legislature, the balance of the U.S. Senate may land in the hands of Montanans as they decide whether or not to send Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester back to Washington for a fourth term. Tester is the only Democrat serving in Montana’s Congressional delegation, and remains one of the country’s most popular senators despite the state’s rightward shift. Tester in November will likely face off against Tim Sheehy, Navy SEAL and CEO of Belgrade-based aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace.

With six months until Election Day, the Beacon set out to interview Flathead Valley voters to find out what issues matter most and how they feel about the candidates that will appear on the ballot in November. 

For Kristen, a 48-year-old receptionist from Somers, her biggest political concerns revolve around development and the valley’s continuous growth. The right candidate, Kristen said, will govern on behalf of the people and not be beholden to special interests, regardless of party.  

“I’m working class being taxed out of my home, and developers pass all of the infrastructure costs onto us in perpetuity. That’s a problem,” she said. “When you’re working class, it all comes down to the bottom line.” 

Kristen identifies as an Independent and says Libertarian candidates will likely get her vote come November. As of right now, though, she said she may vote for Tester in the Senate race. While she’s “not a huge fan of Tester,” she thinks “Sheehy seems like another businessman who would preserve development.” 

Montana Democrats have centered their messaging around Sheehy’s status as a “wealthy out-of-stater” in efforts to shift the Senate race in Tester’s favor. Kristen said, however, it’s not necessarily wealth or previous residence that turns her off to a candidate, but a propensity to cozy up to interest groups. 

“Wealth and being from somewhere else doesn’t necessarily matter to me.” 

Gov. Greg Gianforte faces a challenge from Democrat Ryan Busse, of Kalispell. Kristen said of the incumbent, “He’s not small government. He’s all special interests all the way.” 

For Rock, a 52-year-old Whitefish resident who works in hospitality, Tester’s dedication to veterans issues stands out. Rock is a military veteran himself, which endears him to Tester, though he says the senator “has made mistakes.”

Tester in his tenure in Washington has spearheaded efforts to expand veterans’ services, construct new facilities for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and extend healthcare benefits to veterans who have suffered from illnesses related to toxic burn pit exposure.

Rock’s top concerns are abortion rights and protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. On the economy, he says both Democrats and Republicans make compelling arguments. Rock considers himself an Independent, but he’ll likely vote for Democrats in November. The votes will be begrudging in some cases, he noted. 

“It feels like a lot of these votes are, ‘I don’t like the guy, so I’m stuck with this guy,’” he said. 

Garrett, a 29-year-old contractor from Kalispell, plans to vote Republican down the ballot, though he said he hasn’t thought much about the upcoming election. He cares most about the economy and gun rights, and is concerned about the political division coursing through the United States. 

“The two sides are so far apart,” he said. “We need to bring it back to the center. Get back to the roots of what this country is.”

While Democrats and Republicans both feel the high stakes of the election, Republicans report seeing it as an opportunity to steer the country in the right direction after four years of the Biden administration. Top concerns for Republican voters include inflation, high taxes and immigration, as an influx of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border exerts unprecedented pressure on state and federal agencies. Per a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 80% of Americans say the U.S. government is doing a bad job handling the migrant influx. 

Voter Ashley, pictured April 23, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I think it’s a pivotal election. I think that what happens in this election is going to really be America changing,” Ashley, a 66 year-old retiree from Marion, said.  

For Ashley, immigration and the economy matter most in the voting booth, issues that have been top-of-mind recently. 

Tom, a 54 year-old Creston resident who works in construction, said he’s optimistic about the election. Tom identifies as “conservative” and plans to vote for Trump, Sheehy, Gianforte and Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke come November. Immigration is also at the top of his list of concerns. 

“I think it’s going to fix a lot of stuff,” he said of the election. “It should change the direction of the country.” 

Ben, a 57-year-old Kalispell resident, is “scared to death” at the possibility of Democrats winning in November. He believes senators like Tester should have term limits. On Gianforte, he said, “He’s done a fair job.” 

Across the board, Flathead Valley voters are concerned about housing costs, which have skyrocketed in recent years as population growth has outpaced the supply of homes

“People just can’t live here,” Ashley, the Marion retiree, said. “I don’t think how much we pay people is keeping with the rate of the cost of living. It just is crazy.” 

Voter Robert, pictured April 23, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Republicans and housing advocacy groups have lauded the slate of housing development bills passed during the 2023 Legislature. Democrats, on the other hand, argue that Gianforte and the majority party didn’t go far enough in facilitating the construction of affordable housing or preventing the major spike in property tax bills. 

“It’s almost impossible for a regular person to buy or rent,” Robert, a 77-year-old Whitefish retiree, said. 

Robert said abortion rights, the economy and the state of democracy matter most to him. 

Gregg, a 67-year-old retired lineman from Columbia Falls and a friend of Robert’s, said he’s happy with Tester’s record and believes that things are looking up, both locally and nationally. Robert and Gregg are both Democrats who closely follow politics.

Voter Gregg, pictured April 23, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I like Jon Tester,” Gregg said. “How could you go wrong with Jon Tester? He’s a good guy. You can tell.” 

John, a 75-year-old retiree from Lakeside, calls himself a “Reagan Republican” and feels disillusioned by the current state of the Montana GOP. He’s concerned about the border, foreign policy, Flathead Lake levels and the valley’s growth. He plans to vote for Tester in November, who he said has “done a pretty good job of keeping Montana on top.” 

John is concerned about the race for superintendent of public instruction, in which Republicans Susie Hedalen and Sharyl Allen and Democrat Shannon O’Brien are vying to replace current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, who has sparred with educators and lawmakers over her administration of the state’s highest education office. 

“I don’t think she’s got the respect of public education,” John said. “I don’t think she’s doing enough for teachers. She seems to be way too political.” 

Lily, a 41-year-old Kalispell resident who works as a server, believes that national political tropes have bled into the Flathead Valley, bringing toxic language into local debates. She said that people in and around Kalispell have “lost media literacy and are embracing this really hateful rhetoric.” 

Voter Lily, pictured April 23, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I think our community is really affected by substance abuse,” Lily said, discussing the confounding issues of behavioral health problems, substance use and homelessness in the Flathead. 

The willingness of Kalispell residents to embrace “hateful” rhetoric, Lily said, “freaks me out.” 

Lily considers herself an Independent and plans to vote for Tester and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ryan Busse in November. She’s unsure who she’ll vote for in the upcoming U.S. House race where Zinke will likely face a rematch against Democrat Monica Tranel. 

Some younger voters reported feeling alienated by both parties and wanting a third-party option come Election Day. Others don’t plan on voting at all. 

Brooke, a 25-year-old social media consultant from Columbia Falls, said she’s “right there in the middle” politically, agreeing with policy positions of both Republicans and Democrats. 

Voter Brooke, pictured April 23, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I have a lot of apprehension over it,” Brooke said of the election. “I feel like there’s just no right way to turn, and I’m not really sure how I can make a difference in that.” 

While she plans to vote for Gianforte, she said she’ll need to learn more before deciding on the other races. 

Independent voter and 21-year-old student Elyse is “pretty nervous” about the election and “not sure who to vote for.” She said she looks at a candidate’s character more than their political stances, and that her parents voted for both Democrats and Republicans when she was a child. 

Josh, a 28-year-old Whitefish resident, is “very indifferent” about the election. He’s never voted and likely won’t this fall. 

“I don’t think about it enough to even know when I’m supposed to do it,” he said. 

Jack, a 23-year-old who works in hospitality, hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for in any of the races. He cares about public lands, housing and healthcare access and says the 2024 election seems “messy.”

Voter Jack, pictured April 23, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Party primaries will take place on June 4, and the general election is on Nov. 5. Read more about the candidates running for Legislature in the Flathead and Tobacco valleys here, and find out what legislative district you live in here. Check your voter registration here. 

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