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GOP auditor primary: Who has best resume for general election?

Three candidates vie for open seat
Posted at 8:08 AM, Apr 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-17 16:36:44-04

Editor’s note: This story is part of MTN’s multi-part series on contested state primary election contests. Ballots will be mailed to all voters May 8.
In the GOP primary race for Montana’s open state auditor seat, two insurance professionals say they don’t see the job as a political stepping stone – a clear jab at the third contender, Bozeman businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing.

“I’ve seen people running for that seat to get experience to run for seats later,” says Nelly Nicol, who does communications and marketing for Victory Insurance of Billings, a family-run firm. “That’s kind of frustrating when you’re in the insurance industry.”

Yet Downing, who entered the race almost a year ago, says he has plenty of experience in the investment and insurance world – which are the two industries regulated by the auditor’s office.

“These are two highly regulated, complicated industries that I have practical experience in,” he told MTN News. “This gives me a platform (for) two things: Allowing businesses to thrive and protecting the consumer against bad actors. I’m excited about that.”

The third Republican in the race is Missoula insurance broker and underwriter Scott Tuxbury, who entered the race late, but said he’d been considering it for some time.

“It’s been my dream job to have (this job),” he said. “We need to change the environment (here) so that it becomes the kind of state where insurance companies would want to do business here, as opposed to putting their hands up and saying, `I don’t want to do business here.’”

State auditor is one of the lesser-known elected statewide offices, due in part to its name that bears little relation to the actual job, which is regulating the insurance and investment industries.

In fact, prior auditors have often called themselves “commissioner of securities and insurance,” which is also written on the building that houses the office.

Prior auditors – and the current state auditor, Republican Matt Rosendale – also have often used the position as a possible launching pad for higher office. Rosendale is running for the U.S. House this year, and previous auditors have run for everything from governor to U.S. Senate – without success.

That political reality seems to be the main issue in this year’s GOP primary.

Downing, Nicol and Tuxbury have only minimal differences on the issues: They all want to get rid of unnecessary regulations, while still protecting consumers, and be a conservative voice on the Land Board.

But Nicol and Tuxbury say they’d be the better general-election candidate against the Democratic nominee, because they don’t have any “political baggage” and just want to do the job of insurance regulator, rather than aspire to higher office.

“When the problems do happen, I’m going to be the sort of person on the ground, helping people with their problems,” Tuxbury said. “If people call me, I won’t be in Washington, D.C.”

Nicol said while she’s conservative, she believes she can appeal to people from all political persuasions.

“I can connect with people,” she said. “It’s that common ground, those common goals. And if we can all just work together toward those goals, then we really do get further.”

Nicol and Tuxbury also point to their lengthy careers in the insurance industry, saying they understand what’s needed to increase competition, educate the public and protect consumers.

Yet Downing notes that his recent business ventures include selling shares in self-storage units across the country and developing a firm that insures contents of the storage units, giving him plenty of background in the areas regulated by the auditor.

Downing says as auditor, he would push to get rid of regulations that stymie business – but that he also wants to enforce more transparency in investments and insurance, so consumers know exactly what they’re buying.

Downing ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018, advertising his military background, business experience and strong support for President Trump. He came in third in the four-man GOP primary, but he developed a statewide campaign network that he says has helped him get this year’s campaign up and running.

He also noted that while he’s been campaigning for almost a year, he’s spent most of his time in recent weeks delivering or organizing the delivery of hand sanitizer to the state, the Post Office and local governments and facilities – sanitizer that was manufactured at a Bozeman distillery in which he’s a partner.

“We’ve been busy trying to be part of the solution,” he said. “Now we need to start pushing on the campaign side.”