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Political wild card at MT Legislature: Six lawmakers considering - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Political wild card at MT Legislature: Six lawmakers considering run for U.S. House seat

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Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings
Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte
HELENA -

Politics sometimes start slowly at the opening of a Montana Legislature – but the 2017 session has a political wild card not seen before: Six lawmakers considering a possible special-election run at Montana’s U.S. House seat.

“Instead of just serving … some of us are still in campaign mode,” says Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, who is one of the six. “So you get to see if that’s really going to sway our decisions or not, because (we’re) voting while (we’re) running. It’s a different game, I think.”

The current holder of Montana’s only U.S. House seat, Republican Ryan Zinke, has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be his Interior secretary.

If Zinke is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, perhaps as soon as late January, he would resign his House seat.

Gov. Steve Bullock then would call a special election within 85-to-100 days, setting up an instant campaign, both for candidate nominations and the seat itself.

State political parties would hold special conventions to nominate their candidates a few weeks after Bullock sets the election. A dozen candidates – Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians – have said they’re either running or considering running for the nomination.

Two of those people are state senators: Republicans Scott Sales of Bozeman and Ed Buttrey of Great Falls.

Four more are state representatives: Republican Zolnikov and Democrats Amanda Curtis of Butte, Kelly McCarthy of Billings and Casey Schreiner of Great Falls.

All six were on the job Monday in Helena, the first day of the 2017 Legislature.

The 29-year-old Zolnikov told MTN News that being a candidate while also serving as a legislator “actually puts a target on you a little bit,” because people might interpret your actions as a political move to further your candidacy.

Yet lawmakers giving the race a look say they plan and hope to keep their political aspirations and their legislative jobs separate.

“I understand there could be a temptation to say, `Look, we can’t let this person or that person get any runs on the board, because we’re going to to have to deal with them in a special election,’” McCarthy said. “I hope that’s not the case.”

“I’m going to work really hard while I’m here in the House of Representatives to keep the focus not on myself as a candidate, but on all of the representatives and the business that we do for Montana while we’re here in Helena,” Curtis told MTN News on Monday, moments after she was sworn in as a state lawmaker.

Curtis, 37, is the only lawmaker looking at the U.S. House seat who has previously run a statewide race. She was nominated in August 2014 to become the U.S. Senate candidate against Republican Steve Daines, after Democratic U.S. Sen. John Walsh dropped out of the race.

Curtis lost the race to Daines by 18 percentage points.

Schreiner, 34, said he’s not worried about any political jockeying for the U.S. House nomination among Democrats, because they mostly agree on the issues.

He says he’ll be emphasizing his working-class background, when pitching his House candidacy – a common refrain from many Democrats.

McCarthy, 50, says if he wins the party nomination, he would resign his legislative seat to concentrate on the short, intense campaign for the U.S. House seat – but that he’ll support whichever Democrat manages to snag the nomination.

McCarthy notes that he’s the only Democrat in the mix so far who has a military background and experience dealing with international and military issues. He’s an Air Force veteran who has worked in military intelligence.  

Zolnikov says he’ll be pointing to his efforts to bring more conservative-leaning independents into the political fold, particularly through the use of social media.

“I try to make politics a lot more friendly and accessible,” he told MTN News.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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