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July 28, 2023

While the filing deadline for candidates in the 2024 election is still more than half a year away, the race to replace termed-out Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is already filling up. One Democrat and two Republicans have announced bids so far, ensuring that public education will continue to play a prominent role in Montana’s political discourse next year.

During last weekend’s Montana Democratic Party officers’ convention in Butte, state Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, unveiled her campaign to head OPI. A longtime educator and policy adviser to former Gov. Steve Bullock, O’Brien has emerged as a prime player in the Legislature’s debates over school policy. She served on the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee through the past two sessions and carried bills to increase early childhood education, bolster teacher retention and redefine how Montana measures student performance. 

“I’m looking forward to continuing to travel the state and learn more from Montana students, families, and teachers,” O’Brien said in a written statement to Montana Free Press. “We’re going to build on the good work of Montana’s public schools, to grow a stronger economy. I’m in this because I know we can do better.”

Across the aisle, two more veterans from the upper echelons of the public school system are set to square off on the Republican primary ballot next June. Townsend School District Superintendent Susie Hedalen, who also serves as vice chair of the state Board of Public Education, teed off her run last week with a candidate ad and a string of early campaign stops in eastern Montana. Her website already boasts endorsements from top Republicans Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, as well as a smattering of Republican lawmakers.

Hedalen’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to requests for an interview, but in her announcement ad, the candidate recognized the “unprecedented challenges” facing Montana teachers and vowed to give them “the tools they need to succeed.”

Hedalen will face fellow Republican and current Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen — Arntzen’s longest-lasting right hand through her two terms in office and a regular agency presence at joint policy deliberations with the board. Allen got her start in school administration in the Augusta School District and served in a string of district superintendent positions in Montana and Arizona before joining OPI. Speaking with MTFP this week, Allen highlighted a host of motivations for seeking the office, including a need to improve student safety by fostering a better sense of self and opportunity.

“It’s evident in Montana that we have got students that need to be able to gain identity,” Allen said. “We continue to lead the nation per capita in suicide rates amongst youth. I think it’s time we tackle the elements that are in the margins. You can’t educate kids that have disengaged and ultimately take their own lives.”

Allen and Hedalen have both emphasized the importance of respecting the role and values of families in education — a signal that the conservative-leaning parental rights movement will likely enjoy continued political influence as the 2024 elections approach. Arntzen’s successor will also automatically gain a seat on the Montana State Library Commission, which this month voted to sever ties with the American Library Association after conservative media outlets publicized a now-deleted tweet from the ALA’s president describing herself as a “Marxist lesbian.” Arntzen voted in favor of the withdrawal.

Arntzen, for her part, is one of several Republican politicians who could make a bid for the state’s eastern U.S. House district if incumbent Matt Rosendale files to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Jon Tester — a step he’s telegraphed, but has yet to formally take. 

After Lee newspapers’ State News Bureau questioned the use of an OPI logo at the Montana GOP’s officers’ convention last month, a political strategist for Arntzen, Sam Rubino, said the outgoing superintendent “would take a very serious look at throwing her name in the ring” if the seat opens. Arntzen, a former Republican state lawmaker, ran for Montana’s at-large U.S. House seat in 2014, but lost in the primary to Ryan Zinke, who now represents the state’s western district in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Randy Pinocci, a Republican member of the Public Service Commission, has also said he’d run for the eastern district House seat if Rosendale decides to challenge Tester. 

Alex Sakariassen and Arren Kimbel-Sannit

By the Numbers

Number of cattle that GOP U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy’s Little Belt Cattle Company reported last week to the Montana Department of Revenue for the 2023 tax year, in addition to 10 horses. The disclosure follows reporting from the Daily Beast on July 18 that Sheehy had failed to report the number of livestock on his ranch to the state and pay the associated per capita fee, as is required under Montana law. The state levies a fee of $2.29 per head of cattle and $5.85 per horse.

A Sheehy spokesperson told the outlet that “not filing the report was an oversight, which is being fixed,” but also went on the offensive, claiming Democratic operatives “are working overtime to try and dig up dirt and make ridiculous claims with the hope of smearing Tim Sheehy, a successful businessman and decorated combat veteran.

“This past weekend, while Tim enjoyed a delicious burger made from beef raised at the ranch, he thought about all the liberal tears that will be shed as they come to terms with the fact that he will win this race,” the spokesperson continued to the Daily Beast.

A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue confirmed to Capitolized that the department received livestock fee records for 2021, 2022 and 2023 within three days of the Daily Beast story. 

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester — a Democrat, and more farmer than rancher — also likes to campaign on his agricultural bona fides. Tester’s T-Bone Farms last disclosed livestock to the state from 2006 to 2008, reporting just one horse during that period, according to the department. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Mea Culpa

Previous editions of Capitolized have incorrectly referred to Tim Sheehy as the first Republican to enter the 2024 U.S. Senate race. In fact, East Helena construction company owner Jeremy Mygland beat Sheehy to the punch, but Capitolized regretfully missed his announcement. Mygland filed a statement of candidacy all the way back in July 2022, and has raised almost $100,000 in that time, though he finished the most recent reporting period with only about $8,500 on hand. 

Mygland, who could not be reached for an interview in time for publication Thursday, describes himself on his campaign website as a pro-Trump conservative and born-again Christian. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

Sponsorship tips Arntzen’s hand on possible eastern congressional bidElsie Arntzen has a political strategist. That’s among several mini-revelations in this Lee newspapers’ story about her possible congressional aspirations.

He’s Running for Senate as a Montana Rancher. He’s Skipped Out on the Rancher TaxesThe Daily Beast has the full story on Sheehy’s non-payment of livestock fees, including some history of agriculture-themed campaign attacks in Montana politics.