Byrne, Tracy Face Off in Republican Primary for Conservative State House District

The newly drawn legislative district, which encompasses Creston, Lake Blaine and eastern Flathead County, will see a contest between a retired Army colonel and the former transportation director of the Bigfork School District.

By Denali Sagner
A voter drops their ballot in a ballot box outside the Flathead County Election Office in Kalispell for the primary election on June 7, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Voters in a newly drawn state House district in eastern Flathead County will choose between two Republicans in an upcoming June 4 party primary. First-time political candidate Ed Byrne is a retired Army colonel with roots in the Flathead Valley. Rob Tracy, a volunteer firefighter and former Bigfork School District transportation director, is making his second run for office after an unsuccessful state Senate contest in 2022. The winner of the primary in House District 11 will face off against social worker and Democratic candidate Jennifer Allen in November. However, in the deep red district, which encompasses parts of Creston, Lake Blaine, south Kalispell and north Bigfork, the winner of the Republican primary will likely cruise to Helena in 2025.

The race is one of six Republican primaries in the Flathead Valley where conflicts between conservative and moderate members of the party have unfolded over recent months.

While Byrne received the endorsement of the Flathead County Republican Central Committee (FCRCC) — an organization in which he is an active member — Tracy declined to participate in the endorsement process and chastised the division brewing within the party.

Ahead of the June 4 primary, the Beacon spoke to each candidate about their goals for the Legislature and positioning within the wide ranging Republican caucus.

Byrne, 60, was born in Anchorage in 1964, moving with his family to Missoula at a young age when his father got a job in the area. Byrne’s family had deep roots in the Flathead, and he spent family vacations traveling to the area to tend to the family farm.

Byrne obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Montana, where he participated in ROTC and served in the Montana National Guard. He spent three decades in the Army, where he rose in the ranks to colonel and worked in strategy, both domestically and through tours in the Balkans, Iraq and Haiti.  He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University and a master’s of military strategic studies from the Army War College.

Following his retirement from the Army, Byrne moved back to Montana, settling on his family farm in Creston. He has served as the commander of the Bigfork VFW, president of the Northwest Montana Westerners history group, strategy committee chair for the FCRCC and treasurer of the Glacier Country Pachyderm.

Byrne hopes to focus on tax policy and appropriations in Helena, lowering property taxes and passing relief for seniors and farmers. He wants to end Montana’s policy of taxing seniors on Social Security, rectify what he describes as the “ill-gotten” water compact between Montana and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and introduce legislation to protect property owners against squatters. On tax relief, Byrne believes the state could return its 4% Lodging Facility Use Tax to the counties of origin instead of depositing it into the General Fund and other statewide allocations.

Byrne supports Medicaid and the Healthy Montana Kids children’s health insurance plan, but believes the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which allows more low-income people to access the public health insurance, should not be reauthorized in its current form.

More than 132,000 Montanans lost Medicaid coverage between April 2023 and January 2024, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), making the future of the program a pressing issue ahead of the election.

Byrne does “not believe in affordable housing,” but believes in “attainable housing and workforce [housing].”

A map of House District 11. Courtesy of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission

Tracy, 72, was born in Marblehead, Mass. He earned a degree in marketing from Boston College in 1975, going on to work with utility companies and eventually becoming an independent manufacturers representative. While working in Minnesota, he met his wife, who was raised in Great Falls. The couple settled in the Flathead 20 years ago, where they raised their family.

In the Flathead, Tracy got involved with the Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department, where he became a volunteer firefighter and assisted the organization in securing grant funding. He also became a bus driver for the Bigfork School District, which turned into 12 years working for the district, during six of which he served as transportation director. Tracy serves as a mentor for both at-risk Bigfork students and incarcerated individuals at the Montana State Prison.

Tracy made his first run for Legislature in 2022, challenging longtime Republican legislator Mark Noland as Noland moved from the House to the Senate. Though Tracy lost to Noland in the Republican primary, he garnered 40% of the vote to Noland’s 60%, a feat he saw as an accomplishment for a newcomer challenging a sitting lawmaker.

After a request from two local lawmakers, Tracy in 2021 testified in Helena in support of a bill that increased road safety regulations for school buses following an incident in which a driver hit a 6-year-old girl exiting a school bus in Whitefish.

If elected, Tracy said he hopes to implement tax rebate programs, ensure public schools receive adequate funding and increase teacher pay. While he is focused on “saving tax dollars and reducing waste, fraud and abuse,” he is favorable towards Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. He believes out-of-staters with second homes should pay increased property taxes to alleviate the burden on primary homeowners. 

In general, when it comes to supporting bills, he said, “the devil is in the details.”

For Tracy, the work of a legislator comes from the ground up. He sees himself as a “partner with the people” and describes his political philosophy as, “You start with the constituents, next comes your conscience, and last comes the caucus.”

“People have lost confidence in our political system. They want someone that they can trust. They feel that the job is not being done in Helena,” the candidate said.

Tracy proudly describes himself as a “moderate” and feels that Montana politics have alienated voters.

Tracy’s embrace of the “moderate” label sets him apart from the local Republican establishment, which has rebuked center-leaning candidates and criticized cooperation with Democrats in recent years. The FCRCC in March endorsed six conservative candidates for Legislature, including Byrne, after a slate of center-leaning contenders refused to participate in the endorsement process. While the committee described the process as fair and straightforward, candidates who abstained described it as “disappointing” and lacking “transparency and integrity.”

The FCRCC now says it will be supporting “platform following candidates” in upcoming races.  

“I believe that what’s happened in Flathead County is that politicians –– not partners to the people –– are talking at people and to people, not with people,” Tracy said.

Republican supporters wave a GOP flag at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Nov. 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Byrne, who is involved in FCRCC leadership, said that Tracy “has not been part of the Republican Party,” abstaining from central committee meetings and Lincoln, Reagan, Trump dinners.

When asked if voters might feel sick of party infighting and drawn to a moderate like Tracy, Byrne noted that the district is overwhelmingly conservative, and predicted it will will vote as such.

“When you look at the distinctions, Creston has always been a very, very red, hard red. There’s probably 100 Trump flags flying from houses,” he said.

The district in 2020 voted for Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte by 47 percentage points, Attorney General Austin Knudsen by 52 percentage points, and former President Donald Trump by 48 percentage points.

Byrne said he will support the Republican Party platform and its candidates, no matter who they are.

Tracy said he is eager for bipartisan cooperation and admires politicians who “are willing and genuinely trying to work across the aisle.”

Party primaries will take place on June 4. The general election is 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.

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