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Legislative shake-up as incumbents lose primaries after Montana redistricting

Posted at 7:55 PM, Jun 06, 2024

HELENA — There will be changes in the Montana Legislature’s Republican caucus next year, as six incumbent lawmakers lost in this week’s primary elections.

In total, there were 59 legislative primaries with multiple candidates: 44 on the Republican side and 15 on the Democratic side. Five sitting representatives and one senator, all Republicans, lost their bids for another nomination. Several more House members were defeated while campaigning to move up to the Senate.

In Ravalli County’s Senate District 44, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, won nomination for a second term, holding off a challenge from Rep. Wayne Rusk, R-Corvallis.



Manzella, who chairs the staunchly conservative Montana Freedom Caucus, said she believed this had been the ugliest primary season she’s gone through. She said the results showed a clear division between what she sees as “constitutionally aligned” Republicans and others in the party. She said there are likely to be splits on issues like Medicaid expansion, judicial reform and election reform.

“We're thankful that we've got some strong legislators out there that are either new last session or coming on new this session that we believe will be great assets to the team – because we still take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the state of Montana,” said Manzella. “That really is the job, so I think people expect that of us.”

Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Power, is term-limited and isn’t running this year, but he is the treasurer of a committee called “Conservatives4MT,” which funded advertisements in more than two dozen GOP legislative races. A number of the incumbents the group backed are linked to the “Solutions Caucus,” considered a more moderate GOP faction in the Legislature.

Fitzgerald describes the candidates they backed as “common-sense conservatives” and not extreme. He said the committee was trying to make sure voters had the facts about candidates’ records.

“It’s who's a really, truly conservative Republican that's representing their district; I think that's the thing,” he said. “Of course, your conscience is first, constituents second, and then obviously the caucus or the party is absolutely the third. And I think that's wherein lies some of the differences of opinion, is where your preference and your priorities are.”

Montana Legislative Districts

Both groups saw some wins and some losses on Tuesday. Reps. Tony Brockman, R-Evergreen, and Michele Binkley, R-Hamilton, lost to challengers Lukas Schubert and Kathy Love, who were each backed by the Montana Freedom Caucus’s PAC. However, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, remained narrowly behind – by 47 votes as of Thursday – to Melissa Nikolakakos, wife of Rep. George Nikolakakos. Galloway’s wife, Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, lost to Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, in a race for an open Senate seat.

Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, defeated Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, in the only House primary between two incumbents. In addition, Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, lost to former Rep. Vince Ricci, R-Laurel, who had Freedom Caucus support, and Rep. James Bergstrom, R-Buffalo, lost to challenger Randyn Gregg, who was supported by Conservatives4MT.

House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, ran for an open seat in the Senate but was defeated by Gregg Hunter. Her husband, Miles Knudsen, ran for the House and lost to Valerie Moore. The Knudsens, the parents of Attorney General Austin Knudsen, were both supported by the Montana Freedom Caucus PAC and opposed by Conservatives4MT.

The results remain unofficial as of Thursday, and several incumbent lawmakers held on to very narrow leads over primary challengers. Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Three Forks, a Freedom Caucus member, led Kyle McMurray by 65 votes. Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, supported by Conservatives4MT, led Dave Kesler by 97 votes. Rep. Nelly Nicol, R-Billings, backed by the Freedom Caucus PAC, was 107 votes ahead of David Austin.

The closest GOP Senate primary was in Senate District 35, in Southwest Montana. Tony Tezak led former Rep. Ray Shaw, who was backed by Conservatives4MT, by just 40 votes.

Overall, of 24 candidates the Montana Freedom Caucus PAC endorsed on Facebook, 15 won their primary and 9 lost. Of the 27 races Conservatives4MT was involved in, their candidates won 16 and lost 11.

Gov. Greg Gianforte also weighed in on this year’s Republican primaries, endorsing candidates in 24 contested races. 18 of those candidates won, including 11 supported by Conservatives4MT and one supported by the Freedom Caucus PAC.

On the other side, only two incumbent Democratic lawmakers faced primary challenges, and both of them won: Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, over Lance FourStar, and Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, over Tim Garrison. In three open Senate races, current and former lawmakers faced off: Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, defeated former Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point; Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, defeated former Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer; and former Rep. Sara Novak, D-Anaconda, defeated former Sen. Jessica Wicks, D-Anaconda.

At least one incumbent state lawmaker has been defeated in a primary every election cycle since at least 2008 – though in 2022, there was only one, who had been appointed to fill a vacancy after the previous legislative session and lost a bid for a full term.

Montana Legislative Primary Results (Unofficial):

Republicans:

  • House District 2 (Southern Lincoln County and Marion): Tom Millett over Thomas Jenkins
  • House District 7 (Kalispell): Rep. Courtenay Sprunger over Shaun Pandina
  • House District 8 (Evergreen): Lukas Schubert over Rep. Tony Brockman
  • House District 9 (Lakeside and Somers): Steven Kelly over Lee Huestis
  • House District 11 (Eastern Flathead County): Ed Byrne over Rob Tracy
  • House District 16 (Glacier County): Elaine Utterback Mitchell over Rolland Heagy
  • House District 18 (Toole and Pondera Counties and part of Teton County): Rep. Llew Jones over James Coombs
  • House District 19 (Great Falls): Hannah Trebas over Derren Auger
  • House District 20 (Great Falls): Melissa Nikolakakos over Rep. Steven Galloway
  • House District 21 (Black Eagle): Rep. Ed Buttrey over James Osterman
  • House District 22 (Great Falls): Rep. George Nikolakakos over Jim Whitaker
  • House District 23 (Great Falls): Eric Tilleman over Pete Anderson, John Proud and Josh Denully
  • House District 26 (Chouteau County and parts of Cascade County): Rep. Russ Miner over Dana Darlington
  • House District 28 (Hi-Line): Eric Albus over Mark Wicks and former Rep. Wayne Stahl
  • House District 29 (Northeastern Montana): Valerie Moore over Miles Knudsen
  • House District 33 (Dawson County and southern Richland County): Rep. Brandon Ler over Kathy Hoiland
  • House District 38 (Musselshell, Golden Valley and northern Yellowstone Counties): Rep. Greg Oblander over Nancy Kemler
  • House District 40 (Lockwood): Mike Vinton over Josh Visocan
  • House District 47 (Billings): Stephanie Moncada over Thomas Mahon
  • House District 53 (Yellowstone County): Rep. Nelly Nicol over David Austin
  • House District 55 (Carbon County): Rep. Brad Barker over Mary Horman and Lisa Bennett
  • House District 63 (Bozeman): Mark Lewis over Joe Flynn
  • House District 68 (Gallatin County): Rep. Caleb Hinkle over Rep. Jennifer Carlson and former Sen. Scott Sales
  • House District 70 (Beaverhead County): Shannon Maness over Mary Ann Nicholas and Mike Klakken
  • House District 76 (Powell and Granite Counties): Rep. John Fitzpatrick over Dave Kesler
  • House District 77 (Broadwater County, Three Forks and Manhattan): Rep. Jane Gillette over Kyle McMurray
  • House District 78 (Central Montana): Randyn Gregg over Rep. James Bergstrom
  • House District 79 (Lewis and Clark County): Jill Sark over Demetri Joslin
  • House District 83 (Helena and East Helena): Wes Feist over Christopher St. Jean
  • House District 84 (Helena Valley): Rep. Julie Dooling over Jon Jackson
  • House District 85 (Southern Ravalli County): Kathy Love over Rep. Michele Binkley
  • House District 86 (Hamilton): Rep. David Bedey over Robert Wallace
  • House District 88 (Northern Ravalli County): Greg Overstreet over Kim Dailey
  • House District 90 (Mineral County and parts of Missoula and Sanders Counties): Curtis Cochran over Jeff Stanek and Steven Delisle
  • Senate District 5 (Southern Flathead County): Rep. Matt Regier over Marquis Laude
  • Senate District 13 (Chouteau County and parts of Cascade County): Rep. Josh Kassmier over Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway
  • Senate District 15 (Northeastern Montana): Gregg Hunter over Rep. Rhonda Knudsen
  • Senate District 17 (Southeast Montana): Rep. Bob Phalen over Mike Newton
  • Senate District 27 (Laurel): Former Rep. Vince Ricci over Sen. Chris Friedel
  • Senate District 35 (Madison and Beaverhead Counties): Tony Tezak over former Rep. Ray Shaw and Mark McGinley
  • Senate District 38 (Powell, Granite and Jefferson Counties): Sen. Becky Beard over Rep. Greg Frazer and Jeremy Mygland
  • Senate District 44 (Northern Ravalli County): Sen. Theresa Manzella over Rep. Wayne Rusk and Brad Davis
  • Senate District 45 (Mineral County and parts of Missoula and Sanders Counties): Rep. Denley Loge over AnnaMarie White
  • Senate District 47 (Missoula): Abigail Maki over Erica Siate

Democrats:

  • House District 3 (Whitefish and West Glacier): Former Rep. Debo Powers over Guthrie Quist
  • House District 31 (Fort Peck and Fort Belknap): Rep. Frank Smith over Lance FourStar
  • House District 58 (Livingston): Jamie Isaly over Dean Williamson
  • House District 62 (Bozeman): Josh Seckinger over Rio Roland
  • House District 63 (Bozeman): Peter Strand over John Hansen
  • House District 65 (Bozeman): Brian Close over Anja Wookey-Huffman
  • House District 79 (Lewis and Clark County): Luke Muszkiewicz over Emily Harris and Anne Woodland
  • House District 82 (Helena): Pete Elverum over SK Rossi
  • House District 84 (Helena Valley): Michele Crepeau over David Williams
  • House District 97 (Missoula): Melody Cunningham over Lisa Verlanic Fowler
  • House District 100 (Missoula): Rep. SJ Howell over Tim Garrison
  • Senate District 16 (Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s): Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy over former Rep. Bridget Smith
  • Senate District 21 (Crow and Northern Cheyenne): Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy over former Rep. Rae Peppers
  • Senate District 36 (Butte and Anaconda): Former Rep. Sara Novak over former Sen. Jessica Wicks
  • Senate District 46 (Parts of Missoula, Lake and Sanders Counties): Jacinda Morigeau over CB Pearson