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Montana Farm Bureau gives potential candidates a look at politics

Farm Bureau Candidate Seminar
Farm Bureau Candidate Seminar
Posted at 6:42 PM, Feb 07, 2024

HELENA — Crafting a message, talking to voters, raising money – there’s a lot that can be unfamiliar and even intimidating when someone decides they want to run for public office. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation recently held an event intended to help people get over that first hurdle as they put themselves forward in an election.

More than a dozen prospective candidates gathered in Helena for a campaign training seminar, introducing them to the process of running for office.

“We're just trying to teach people how to run good, effective, meaningful campaigns that are not just the typical jargon that you hear, especially in a nationalized political environment – that people are running races that matter for their communities,” said Mike Sistak, director of advocacy and political management for the American Farm Bureau Federation, who conducted the seminar.

AFBF does programs like this in partnership with many of their state Farm Bureaus. Sistak said they’ve held them in more than 20 states over the last year. The seminars are open to candidates regardless of party, and you don’t have to be in agriculture to take part – though many of those in attendance in Helena were.

Josh Senecal is a rancher from Ronan, and president of the Northwest Counties Farm Bureau. He’s running as a Republican candidate for the Lake County Commission. He first attended this seminar two years ago, knowing his district’s commission seat wouldn’t be open until this year.

Senecal said going through the program gave him a better understanding of what a campaign would take as he decided whether to run.

“I think farmers and ranchers are too trusting that there's always someone speaking on their behalf,” he said. “That's why I started becoming an advocate for agriculture, is because I realized that there wasn't anyone speaking up for us.”

Prospective candidates got an introduction to campaign tactics, learned how campaigning can affect their families and even got a chance to practice mock TV interviews.

Farm Bureau Candidate Seminar
Ray Shaw, a former Republican state representative and candidate for state Senate, gives a mock TV interview at the Montana Farm Bureau's candidate training seminar.

Sistak said he always gets questions from people concerned about fundraising.

“Yes, you do need to raise money to run for office – that's just the truth, that's the nature of the beast,” he said. “I think getting folks comfortable with actually being out there, talking to voters, asking for votes, asking for donations – if people have never done that before, yeah, that can feel awkward.”

Sistak said, across the country, the Farm Bureau has seen a greater than 80% success rate for those taking part in the program and going on to win an election. In Montana, successful candidates who’ve gone through the seminar include Rep. Russ Miner, R-Cascade County, who was elected to the Montana House in 2022, and Montana Department of Agriculture Director Christy Clark, who previously served three terms in the House. Both were in attendance for this year’s event.

Senecal said, this year, he invited a friend who’s considering running for office two years from now.

“This is a great program,” he said. “I recommend it to anyone seeking to do anything in political office.”