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Republican primaries set to shape Montana Legislature

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 6:00 AM, May 12, 2022

HELENA -Republicans have held a solid majority in the Montana Legislature for more than a decade, and that pattern appears likely to continue in 2022.

That means GOP primaries could play a big role in how next year’s legislative session plays out.

Across 100 House races and 26 Senate races statewide, 31 feature two or more Republicans competing in the June primary.

Nine incumbent Republican lawmakers are facing primary challengers. In the remaining 22 races, multiple Republicans are running to replace a departing incumbent or challenge a Democrat.

The contested races are spread across the state, from Miles City to Mineral County. Eight of them are in the Flathead alone.

One notable contest is the only one in the state where two incumbent Republicans are facing off: Reps. Geraldine Custer and Barry Usher are both running to represent Senate District 20 in Eastern Montana.

Each of them currently represents half of the district, which includes all of Musselshell and Treasure Counties and parts of Rosebud, Yellowstone and Custer Counties. Incumbent Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, is termed-out and couldn’t run again.

Custer lives near Forsyth. She served more than 30 years as the clerk and recorder of Rosebud County, before being elected to the state House in 2014, where she’s served four terms. She points to her family background in agriculture, her knowledge of the issues facing the district and her local government experience.

Custer says Ankney encouraged her to run for his seat. Both of them have been linked to the “Solutions Caucus,” a group of Republicans known to break with party leaders and work with Democrats on certain issues. During the 2021 session, Custer voted against Republican-sponsored bills to eliminate Election Day voter registration, to establish partisan judicial elections and to keep transgender athletes off girls’ sports teams.

“I feel like, as a candidate, that you’re sent there to not compromise your own values, and definitely to vote for what’s good for your area,” Custer said. “If you’ve done that, I think at the end of the day you can rest easy, and I feel like that’s what I do. Sometimes, yes, it goes against what the party does, but I feel like my experience is why I can stand up.”

Custer says she’s open to some new ideas on election law, but she’s confident Montana’s elections are secure. She also says she trusts judges in the state to act impartially and doesn’t see a need for extensive changes to judicial elections. Some of the top priorities she identifies are addressing rising property taxes, housing and labor shortages, child care availability and the economic transition around Colstrip.

Usher is a business owner, operating dealerships like Beartooth Harley-Davidson and Beartooth Mahindra near Billings, where he sells motorcycles, tractors and off-road vehicles. He unsuccessfully challenged Ankney in a Senate primary in 2014, then was elected to the House in 2016 and has held the seat for three terms.

Usher has been a staunch conservative in the Legislature, and he points to his voting record when encouraging GOP primary voters to support him. He argued Custer has broken with the Republican party line even more than the other Solutions Caucus members.

“I think it’s pretty easy and clear; you just have to look up our voting records,” he said. “We differ on the majority of our votes. I’m clearly a conservative Republican voting Montana values, and my opponent is not.”

Usher says he’s seen constituents losing faith in the state’s election system, and he favors more restrictions on voter ID and registration as measures to ensure integrity. He argues the Montana Supreme Court and district judges have put themselves above other branches of government, and he supported proposals to make judicial elections partisan and elect Supreme Court justices by district instead of at-large.

Usher identified inflation and property taxes as the biggest issues for people in his district. He also says he’s focused on criminal justice, including addressing aspects of a 2017 reform package that he believes have hindered the justice system.

In House District 97, which covers Lolo and rural parts of Missoula County, two Republicans are running to replace the termed-out Rep. Brad Tschida, a prominent conservative who is now running for state Senate.

Lyn Hellegaard is executive director of Missoula Ravalli Transportation Management Association and the Montana Transit Association. She also served one term on the Missoula City Council from 2008 to 2011. She says her work has given her experience working with legislators and being part of the lawmaking process.

Hellegaard says she’s most concerned about inflation and rising property taxes. She wants the state to focus on boosting resource development as a way to reduce the burden on property owners.

Hellegaard, along with Tschida, has also been involved with an effort by Missoula County activists that alleged there were discrepancies in the 2020 election and said they found several thousand mail ballots couldn’t be matched with envelopes. She says there are loopholes in state election law that should be changed to ensure security.

Missoula County election officials have said the activists’ claim is inaccurate, and that all 2020 ballots were properly certified.

Michael Burks owns several businesses in Montana, Idaho and Washington. He’s also a volunteer pilot and “wing leader” with Angel Flight West, an organization that arranges free flights for people in need of health care or other assistance.

MTN reached out to Burks multiple times but did not receive a response from him. In a statement on his website announcing his candidacy, he identified property taxes, the cost of living, crime rates, and homelessness as some of the issues that need to be addressed.

In a March post on his campaign Facebook page, Burks pushed back on claims about election integrity. He said a second count of 2020 ballots, conducted with county GOP volunteers watching, found less than 100 ballots. He said the results showed no evidence of corruption, and he urged voters to participate in this year’s election – and trust their ballots will be counted.

Hellegaard says she believes there is room for Republicans to work their disagreements out within the party.

“That’s one thing that I like about that body, is you can have a differing opinion and get those arguments and discussions out, which helps our constituents understand what’s going on,” she said. “I’m for the discussion – and that’s one thing about the Republicans, we typically don’t vote the party line.”

Here is a full list of Montana legislative districts with contested Republican races:

  • House District 3 (Columbia Falls, West Glacier and eastern Flathead County): Incumbent Rep. Braxton Mitchell, Lorena Wood
  • House District 5 (Whitefish): Lyn Bennett, Brian Owens
  • House District 7 (Kalispell): Dave Ingram, Courtenay Sprunger
  • House District 8 (Kalispell): Former Rep. David Dunn, Terry Falk, Lynne Ogden Rider, Mark Twichel
  • House District 9 (Kalispell and Evergreen): David August, Tony Brockman, Constance Neumann
  • House District 11 (Somers and Lakeside): Devon Decker, Ronalee Skees, Tanner Smith
  • House District 14 (Mineral County and parts of Sanders and Missoula Counties): Incumbent Rep. Denley Loge, Randy Mitchell
  • House District 15 (Parts of CSKT and Blackfeet reservations): Ralph Foster, Betsy Johnson
  • House District 17 (Teton County and parts of Lewis and Clark and Pondera Counties): Incumbent Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, Justin Cleveland
  • House District 26 (Great Falls): Marci Marceau, George Nikolakakos
  • House District 30 (Central Montana): James Bergstrom, Randyn Gregg
  • House District 38 (Miles City): Wyatt Winchester English, Greg Kmetz, Mike Willems
  • House District 40 (Musselshell County and northern Yellowstone County): Bob Goffena, Bruce Hoiland, John Nickelson, Greg Oblander
  • House District 55 (Laurel): Lee Deming, Curtis Schomer
  • House District 65 (Bozeman): James Cocco, Ryan Eisele
  • House District 68 (Belgrade): Incumbent Rep. Caleb Hinkle, former Rep. Bruce Grubbs
  • House District 75 (Jefferson County): Incumbent Rep. Marta Bertoglio, Tim McKenrick
  • House District 78 (Anaconda and Deer Lodge): Incumbent Rep. Gregory Frazer, Steven Grant
  • House District 81 (Helena): Charlie Hull, Jill Sark
  • House District 84 (Helena and East Helena): Kurt Aughney, Keith Pigman, Kaitlyn Ruch
  • House District 86 (Hamilton): Incumbent Rep. David Bedey, Jeffrey Jones
  • House District 88 (Northern Ravalli County): Alan Lackey, Wayne Rusk
  • House District 97 (Lolo and other outlying areas of Missoula County): Michael Burks, Lyn Hellegaard
  • Senate District 4 (Kalispell): Rep. John Fuller, Lee Huestis
  • Senate District 5 (Flathead County): Rep. Mark Noland, Rob Tracy
  • Senate District 12 (Great Falls): Rep. Wendy McKamey, Desma Meissner
  • Senate District 14 (North-central Montana): Incumbent Sen. Russ Tempel, Steven Chvilicek
  • Senate District 20 (Eastern Montana): Rep. Geraldine Custer, Rep. Barry Usher
  • Senate District 34 (Belgrade): Bryan Donald Haysom, Shelley Vance
  • Senate District 43 (Southern Ravalli County): Incumbent Sen. Jason Ellsworth, Joede Vanek
  • Senate District 49 (Missoula County): Nancy Burgoyne, Rep. Brad Tschida