Credit: Clint McFarlin/Eric Dietrich

With the results of Montana’s 2020 primary election now fully in, it appears that a concerted effort by right-flanking primary challengers to oust more moderate members of the Montana Legislature’s Republican delegation has met with mixed results. Conservative Solutions Caucus lawmakers held their own in eight of the 12 contested races Montana Free Press identified last month, with the other four seats falling to more hardline conservative candidates. In the bulk of those races, incumbents won with at least two-thirds of the votes. Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls had a particularly strong showing, besting challenger Jeni Dodd with roughly 82% of the vote.

Among the losses for the Solutions Caucus was the defeat of incumbent Rep. Joel Krautter in Richland County. A legislative bridge builder among Republicans, Krautter faced a high-profile challenge from Brandon Ler, whose criticism of Krautter focused heavily on Krautter’s bipartisan voting record, including his support for Medicaid expansion. Other key primaries saw the defeat of Sen. Tom Richmond in Yellowstone County at the hands of former Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar, and the ouster of Sen. Eric Moore, who negotiated a bipartisan infrastructure bonding bill in 2019, by self-styled “true conservative” Jerry Schillinger. Nearly 65% of voters in those races cast ballots for the conservative challenger.

Efforts to unseat Solutions Caucus members were backed by a flurry of cross-candidate endorsements and campaign donations, as well as public messaging by Doctors for a Healthy Montana, a conservative-aligned group critical of Medicaid expansion renewal. That group spent roughly $5,000 during the 2020 primary opposing Republican legislators who voted for the renewal. 

Rep. Frank Garner, who won his Flathead primary last night against staunch conservative Jerry O’Neil, was proud of the positive, policy-focused campaigns he saw his fellow Solutions Caucus members run, even if some were unsuccessful. Most elections are “bittersweet,” he said, and he considers the defeat of several of his colleagues a loss not just for the party but for the Legislature as a whole.

“People like Nancy Ballance and Eric Moore and Bruce Grubbs and Joel Krautter, those are people I worked with closely on bills and on projects with,” Garner said. “So for me, I think it’s unfortunate to see us lose that kind of experience in the Legislature.”

For the 2019 session’s self-branded “.38 Special” hard-liners, gains were tempered by two losses to more moderate challengers. In Jefferson City, incumbent Rep. Greg DeVries, who carried a constitutional amendment to define personhood as beginning at conception, lost to Marta Bertoglio by nearly 700 votes. And challenger Brian Putnam has claimed victory over Kalispell Rep. David Dunn, who penned an op-ed in the Flathead Beacon last year calling on “patriotic Republicans across the state” to examine their representatives’ voting records and mount primary challenges to those they disagreed with. Putnam won by just 36 votes.

Speaking to MTFP Wednesday, Dunn partly credited the challenge to his op-ed, saying he’d “put a bullseye” on his own head. He said his review of his opponent’s campaign finance reports led him to suspect the primary was an effort by the Solutions Caucus to unseat him, and while he’s disappointed by last night’s results, Dunn is optimistic that electoral victories elsewhere will lead to a stronger conservative presence in the Legislature and the governor’s office.

“I’m pretty bummed out today,” Dunn said. “But when I look at all the state races, it’s looking like a good day for the conservative movement.”

Two other attempts to topple members of the .38 Special proved unsuccessful. Rep. Mark Noland of Bigfork, who chaired the House Business and Labor Committee last session, managed to withstand a challenge from Montana Athletic Club owner Doug Mahlum by 380 votes. And conservative firebrand Rep. Derek Skees held out in his race against former Flathead County Republican Party Chair Dee Kirk-Boon, who campaigned on the proposition that negotiation is essential to successful legislation. Skees won by 353 votes, and said he’s confident Republicans can set aside their differences and be in a strong position to tackle issues like government waste in 2021, especially if Republican Greg Gianforte wins the governor’s race in November.

If that occurs, “then there’s going to be a hundred things that we agree on and only a few we don’t agree on,” Skees said of conservatives coming together under a GOP administration.

Attempts by both sides of the GOP rift to pick up open Senate seats delivered an equally mixed bag. Rep. Walt Sales of Manhattan, a Solutions Caucus ally, emerged victorious with 57% of the vote in a three-way Republican primary for Senate District 35 against opponents Gary Perry and former Montana Republican Party Treasurer Debra Brown. But in Ravalli County, the tense race for Senate District 44 swung to the .38 Special. Current Rep. Theresa Manzella, an unflinching champion of Republican and constitutional principles, defeated term-limited Rep. Nancy Ballance, who came late to her support for Medicaid expansion but steadfastly defended her choices in 2019. Ballance loaned her campaign $38,000 to combat what she characterized as a flood of out-of-county messaging targeting her Medicaid expansion vote. Turnout was notably high for a Republican primary in that district, with 5,792 votes cast — 3,652 of them going to Manzella.

“There is MUCH work to be done for our great state of Montana,” Manzella said in a campaign Facebook post Wednesday. “But by working hard to get the right Governor in the Captains chair, utilizing the talents and experiences of our people, as well as our God given natural resources, and uniting our voices, I’m confident we can create the healthy, limited, accountable, transparent government that we all desire for the ultimate prosperity of our citizens.”

Ballance said she was surprised by the numbers, and speculated that the message she’d thought would resonate in the Bitterroot — one built on jobs, families and health care — hadn’t reached enough voters, in part due to the difficulties of campaigning during a pandemic. Medicaid expansion may have been the primary line of attack against her in the primary, but she said she has no regrets about her voting record.

“If I had it to do over, I’d do exactly the same thing,” Ballance said. “It was the right thing to do for Montana, it was the right thing to do for Ravalli County.” 

Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.