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House District 35, which aligns with Richland County along the Montana-North Dakota state line, is in political terms about as red as Montana gets.
Voters in the district gave President Donald Trump 81% of their votes in the 2016 election, more than all but one other House district in the state. The last legislative candidate to run in the district as a Democrat, Chris Trumpower in 2016, won less than one vote in five.
Even so, as the district’s incumbent state representative, Joel Krautter of Sidney, asks voters for a second term in the Montana House Krautter is emphasizing bipartisanship. His campaign website features a railroad bridge across the Missouri River.
That’s a deliberate message, Krautter said in an interview last week. As he sees it, eastern Montana’s sparse population and correspondingly small legislative delegation requires its representatives to be coalition builders.
“For us to be able to get anything done in Helena, we have to be able to work together with other legislators,” he said.
Krautter, 32, is one of several centrist Solutions Caucus Republicans in the Montana Legislature facing challengers from the hard-right wing of the party in this spring’s primary election. As a young lawmaker who earned a reputation as an aisle-crosser during the 2019 session by hobnobbing with Democrats and voting with the Solutions Caucus to pass bipartisan legislation like the renewal of Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, he’s among the most vulnerable.
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His challenger in the June 2 GOP primary, Savage Public School trustee and Double L Fencing owner Brandon Ler, has seized on Krautter’s record to argue the district isn’t getting the representation its conservative voters deserve. In addition to the Medicaid renewal vote, a sore spot for limited-government conservatives across the state, Ler has cited bipartisan legislation that raised some taxes and authorized public debt for infrastructure projects.
“I believe that Richland County’s true values have not been accurately represented in the statehouse,” Ler said at a May 14 candidate forum hosted by the Sidney Chamber of Commerce.
Ler, who didn’t respond to calls and messages requesting an interview for this article, has campaigned on being less a bridge builder and more a reliably conservative vote in Helena.
“While every representative should vote their conscience, we need a representative whose conscience is consistently conservative. And that’s me,” he told attendees at a GOP Lincoln-Reagan dinner in Sidney, according to a video of a stump speech posted to his campaign Facebook page in February.
“You can count on me not giving two pennies for what Democrat legislators across the state care about. I care about what you think,” he said.
Krautter, on the other hand, says his bridge-building has delivered results for his district. He says he supported the Medicaid bill, authored by Solutions Caucus Republican Ed Buttrey, because it was supported by the rural hospital in his district.
As Ler points out, Richland County did vote down a 2018 ballot measure that would have permanently renewed the Medicaid expansion and funded the state’s share of its cost by raising tobacco taxes — a defeat Medicaid expansion opponents point to as evidence local voters didn’t care for the program. Krautter argues the Buttrey bill was a significantly different proposal, tapping other funding sources and renewing the program with several provisions Krautter considered reforms. Renewing Medicaid expansion, he says, has helped keep rural hospitals afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Krautter also points to his House Bill 656, which tweaks the distribution of Montana oil and gas tax revenue to direct more money to municipal governments during oil booms. Long-term, the Montana League of Cities and Towns estimated it could mean that Sidney and other municipalities in counties with oil production could see an extra $1 million to $5 million a year.
“It was something people told me they wanted me to work on, and I got it accomplished,” Krautter said.
HB 656 passed the Montana Senate unanimously and the Montana House on an 89-11 vote, with opposition from some hard-line Republicans. It was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock May 9.
If he’d taken a partisan approach to that legislation, Krautter said, it wouldn’t have made it past Bullock’s veto pen.
“I don’t think a hardline approach would have been as effective for my district,” he said.
Among the entities leveling attacks against Krautter this election cycle, according to political practices filings, is the Kalispell-based political action committee Doctors for a Healthy Montana, managed by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, and Dr. Annie Bukacek, a vaccine-skeptic Flathead County Board of Health member who has questioned official COVID-19 death tolls to suggest that public health responses are designed to subjugate citizens. The committee, which describes itself as pro-life and claims Medicaid expansion has expanded abortion access, has reported spending against several Solutions Caucus Republicans in disputed GOP primaries including Krautter, Senate District 44 candidate Nancy Ballance and Rep. Eric Moore, who represents several rural counties in southeastern Montana.
In Sidney, the group’s filings indicate it plans to spend a total of $1,500 on a billboard “Explaining Rep. Joel Krautter’s vote for taxpayer-funded abortions through HB658.”
On April 7, Krautter filed a political practice complaint alleging the name of the committee is misleading, given that three of its four initial donors were sitting legislators and not physicians, contrary to state law that requires political committee names to reflect the economic interests of a majority of their backers. Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan ruled in Krautter’s favor May 15.
Krautter also said he’s firmly pro-life and pointed to his perfect marks on the conservative Montana Family Foundation’s 2019 legislative score card. The foundation commissioned a legal analysis concluding that Montana’s expansion program does in fact make abortions more accessible because enrollees can be eligible for family planning services through Planned Parenthood, but didn’t factor the expansion renewal bill into its 2019 legislative scores.
Ler and Krautter, both of whom say they’re gun owners, have also traded barbs over gun rights. In a May 20 Facebook post, Ler responded to a mailer apparently questioning his second amendment bona fides by posting a photo to his campaign Facebook posing with his young children and a kitchen table filled with firearms.
“Joel Krautter is shaking in his penny loafers that I’m going to win this election,” Ler wrote.
During the 2019 session, Krautter was one of the Capitol’s more visible bipartisans. At one point, Montana Historical Society photographer Tom Ferris snapped a picture of Krautter and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, now a Democratic candidate for governor, showing off Montana flag socks in the governor’s office, their dress pants pulled up and their shoes propped on a conference table.
Krautter said last week that he saw the exchange as a moment of light-hearted camaraderie across party lines.
“I’m always glad to be trying to bring back some of that collegiality that I think is missing from politics today,” he said. “You hear about all the time as far as back in the good old days where Republicans and Democrats could disagree on policy and still get a drink after the floor debate ended. Now, it seems like there’s so much toxicity in politics that you can’t even sit down with someone of the other party without being accused of compromising something.”
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Krautter bristled at the suggestion that he may be cozier with Democrats than some of his constituents might prefer, saying he thinks they just want an effective advocate in Helena.
“It just seems like there’s a hyper-sensitivity going on right now about who’s a ‘true Republican,’” he said. “It’s all of this suspicion and all of these accusations of ‘traitors among us,’ and it’s just totally toxic to the Republican Party and getting things done for my district and for Montana.”
He continued: “It’s very much like the John Birch Society, when in the 1950s they were accusing President Eisenhower of being a communist.”
Republican-In-Name-Only attacks on conservatives with a bipartisan streak are nothing new in Montana politics. In Krautter’s case, however, they carry extra punch because he was in fact a Democrat briefly in his youth — a piece of personal history some of his critics have used to make political hay.
A University of Montana law graduate who moved to Sidney to take a job at a local law firm in 2014, Krautter completed his undergraduate studies at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian university in Virginia founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.
During his sophomore year at Liberty, Krautter helped found a college Democrats chapter there. A 2008 election night story from Lynchburg’s News & Advance newspaper described him and a classmate celebrating President Barack Obama’s victory.
The Montana Daily Gazette, a right-wing media site run by Sidney pastor Jordan Hall, seized on that anecdote and a Washington, D.C. internship with former Montana Sen. Max Baucus to attack Krautter as insufficiently loyal to the Republican cause, producing a post titled “A Documented Timeline of Rep. Joel Krautter’s Service to the Democratic Party.”
“It was just kind of a time when I was exploring my political beliefs but still wanted to be active in the political process,” Krautter said. He was hanging out with the college Republicans by his senior year, he said, and volunteered for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012.
His change in perspective, he said, was driven by his conclusion that liberal social welfare programs are less effective at helping low-income people live more prosperous lives than business-minded proposals favored by Republicans.
“I want to help people have the best lives possible,” he said, “and I just saw that Democrat policies I didn’t think were doing a good job of that.”
Krautter’s time at Liberty also saw him elected its class president in 2011 and produced what he describes as an ongoing friendship with the university’s current president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who wrote a letter endorsing Krautter while he was campaigning for the Montana House in 2018.
“I’ve known Joel for over a decade since he was a student at Liberty University and have been able to see his leadership in action on many occasions,” Falwell wrote. “Joel is an effective leader because he excels at building relationships, which is an essential asset to have in a legislator.”