A subcommittee of members from the Lewis and Clark and Powell county Republican central committees advanced three candidates to replace the resigning Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, on Friday. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / MTFP

Members of the Lewis and Clark and Powell County Republican central committees on Friday advanced three candidates to replace resigning Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, in Senate District 40.

By statute, the decision now falls to the Lewis and Clark and Powell county commissions, which will choose between sitting Rep. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, Helena businessman and former state Senate candidate Matt Olson, and Conrad Evarts, who guides international hunting and adventure trips and entered the political fray during the pandemic for his vocal opposition to COVID-19 mandates.

A fourth candidate, rancher Zack Wirth, did not receive the votes required to move to the next stage of the process.

Gauthier, who was not up for re-election this year, announced his resignation in November, explaining that he will embark on a 20-country motorcycle tour in March. Gauthier, who previously owned McDonald’s franchises in Helena, told Helena’s Independent Record his preferred replacement would be Olson, who previously owned a Dairy Queen franchise in Helena. 

The senator’s resignation kicked off a complicated vacancy process laid out in state law. In districts that include multiple counties, as SD 40 does, the central committees from each county corresponding to the party of the seat’s last occupant — in this case, the GOP — nominate members to a subcommittee that winnows a list of nominees to three and submits its picks to the two county commissioners from each county. The county commissioners have 15 days to select a replacement from that list. 

All four candidates emphasized their conservative credentials in interviews with the subcommittee, expressing support for deregulating industry, restricting abortion, and promoting fossil fuel development, among other issues. The candidates all also said they supported keeping the Montana state hospital and state prison in Powell County, where the facilities are key economic drivers. 

Beard in particular highlighted her experience as a sitting legislator just elected to her fourth term. 

“I have the knowledge, the experience and the rapport with not only my peers in the Legislature but with the executive and with my constituents,” she told the subcommittee. “It is so important to let our community know that they have elected somebody to represent them. It is their government. That is my forte, not the politics end of it, but representing you, the voters.”

Whomever the commissioners choose to replace Gauthier will serve the remaining two years of his term, said Montana legislative code commissioner Todd Everts. Those two years would not count against term limits should the replacement decide to run for re-election at the end of the term, meaning they could serve up to 10 consecutive years. If Beard is named the replacement, the same county parties would have to undertake the same process to fill her vacated House seat. Her current committee assignments include chairmanship of the House Taxation Committee.

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.