HD 64 Signs

A sign for Republican House District 64 candidate Randy Chamberlain is posted along a road Friday, April 24, 2020, in Gallatin Gateway.

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It’s that time of year.

Campaign signs are popping up in yards, affixed to fence posts, along highways and on billboards.

The signs are one of the few indicators of election season that remain, however, as campaign events, door-knocking and signature-gathering have ceased with the coronavirus pandemic. Even the traditional lines at polling places will disappear as the June 2 primary is now a mail-ballot election.

“The election simply isn’t the top story in the news, which is what we typically see in an election year,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College. “The campaign has receded into the background.”

Despite the changes, voters still face important choices, including in dozens of contested legislative primaries. In Gallatin County, five legislative districts are on the primary ballots.

It’s difficult to predict what the changes to the political landscape will mean for election results. Will incumbents have an advantage because voters are more likely to recognize them? Will more moderate or more conservative or progressive candidates prevail?

“It’s just too early to know what’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “These are uncertain times.”

Republican primary

The four local Republican primaries are contests generally between more moderate and more conservative candidates.

In Senate District 35, which covers northwest Gallatin County as well as pieces of Broadwater and Lewis and Clark counties, three candidates are hoping to fill the seat now held by Scott Sales, who is running for secretary of state.

On the conservative side is Gary Perry, a former longtime state lawmaker. Among the bills he pushed for as a lawmaker was one that would have required birth certificates for stillborn children. He supports U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a conservative Republican choice for governor.

The more moderate choice is Walt Sales, a Manhattan rancher who has served two terms in the state House. He’s a member of the Solutions Caucus, a group of Republicans that has worked with the Democratic minority to pass legislation including the renewal of Medicaid expansion.

A first-time candidate has also entered the race. Debra Brown, a Winston resident, has long served as the treasurer of the Montana Republican Party and was part of an effort in 2015 to bring the Veterans Party to Montana.

In Belgrade, Bruce Grubbs, the incumbent for House District 68 and a Solutions Caucus member, has a challenger to his right, Caleb Hinkle, a former legislative worker. Hinkle has repeatedly questioned Grubbs’ voting record and called him a Democrat in all but name.

The race looks similar in House District 69 in northwest Gallatin County.

There, Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert, a moderate voice on the board, will face Jennifer Carlson, a Manhattan resident who has a more conservative platform centered on personal liberty and limited government.

The contours of the race in House District 64 are different as two more similar candidates work to win the seat held by Rep. Kerry White, who is terming out. Jane Gillette, a dentist, ran a failed legislative campaign in 2018 and serves on Gianforte’s health care advisory committee. She is running against political newcomer Randy Chamberlin, the CEO of Montana Steel Industries.

The Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the state House and Senate, sees the dynamics of the June primary as typical.

“The split in the Republican Party is no different than it has been in the past, and there is a similar struggle between moderates and more progressive candidates in the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Greg Hertz, of Polson and the committee’s chair. “The hope is that we can come together as a caucus to pass legislation that is good for Montana.”

For Hertz, the most important issue is not the candidates themselves but the changes to the election that stem from COVID-19. Without the ability to speak to voters, he said first-time candidates are at a disadvantage.

“Our districts in Montana are small enough that candidates can knock on the doors of and speak to all of our constituents,” Hertz said. “In Montana, we really value getting to talk directly to voters. We can’t do this, and it’s hampering our campaigns.”

Democratic primary

There are two contested Democratic primaries, which, similar to the Republican primaries, are races between more moderate and more liberal candidates.

The House District 61 primary winner will go on to represent the district because no Republicans are running for the east Bozeman seat.

Incumbent Jim Hamilton, a retired financial advisor and key Democratic voice on taxes and the budget, is running against the more liberal Brian Close, a tax lawyer who has been endorsed by the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana AFL-CIO.

Like the Republicans, Democrats have a contested primary in House District 64, which runs from Four Corners to West Yellowstone. The Democrats see the district as one they can flip because the district’s demographics have changed as the Gallatin Valley has grown.

Democrats will choose between Brian Popiel, the owner of Arete Builders in Bozeman and a vocal member of the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association, and Josh Seckinger, a fly-fishing guide, who ran a brief failed campaign for U.S. Senate during which he voiced support for more liberal policies like Medicare for All.

Flipping House District 64 is a priority for Democrats, who are looking to change the composition of the state House where they hold 42 seats — nine shy of the majority.

“We lost some races in 2018 by a slim margin and do think it’s realistic to capture these and gain a majority in the House,” said Sen. Pat Flowers, a member of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “With a majority, we can better help working families and continue the fight for better access to affordable health care, which has become even more important to voters with this pandemic.”

However, COVID-19 is changing the election.

“It almost feels inappropriate to even be talking about politics right now,” said Flowers, who represents southern Gallatin County. “We need to work together to get through this public health and economic crisis. That — not the election — is our No. 1 priority.”

The Gallatin County Democrats have been scrambling to provide information to voters, restructuring long-planned events and figuring out what campaigning looks like without personal interactions. There is no way to know how the changes will play out on June 2.

“Politics in Montana is difficult in the best of times,” said Gallatin Democrats chair Elizabeth Marum. “I would say it’s impossible to predict in the time of COVID-19.”

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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