In crowded Republican field, eastern district House candidates work to stand out

U.S. Capitol MTN
Posted at 7:46 PM, Dec 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-19 21:46:41-05

HELENA — As U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale continues to say he’s “heavily considering” jumping into the race for U.S. Senate, the field of Republicans looking at running for his eastern district U.S. House seat keeps growing.

Montana’s official candidate filing period doesn’t open until Jan. 11, but six Republicans have filed campaign finance paperwork with the Federal Election Commission expressing interest in the race for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Two of those Republicans are sitting statewide elected officials. State Auditor Troy Downing launched his campaign for the House last month, highlighting his time in the military, his experience as a businessman and the work he’s done in office. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen has committed to keep her campaign in an “exploratory phase” until Rosendale officially says he’s not seeking another term, but they are active on social media. Arntzen’s campaign recently touted her as “the first candidate in the race to endorse” former President Donald Trump for reelection in 2024.

The other candidates will have to find different platforms to reach voters.

Earlier this month, Joel Krautter, an attorney who lives in Billings, held a campaign kickoff event in Helena. His guest, appearing by video, was former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, who called him a man of character who would be able to work together with others for the benefit of Montana.

“He is the kind of a return, in a way, to the traditional values that were demonstrated by candidates in the past, like Mike Mansfield or Jeannette Rankin – and that, I think, is unusual in this day and age,” Racicot told MTN. “But I think the people of this country, and I know in Montana are hoping for a return to politics to demonstrate some sanity and some capacity to get things done on their behalf.”

Krautter, 35, plans to run for Congress regardless of Rosendale’s decision, saying he wants to represent the next generation of leaders. He started practicing law in Sidney in 2014. As a managing partner of his law firm, he moved to Billings last year. He was elected to the state House in 2018, where he was linked to the “Solutions Caucus” – a more moderate GOP faction in the Legislature. He then lost a Republican primary for reelection in 2020.

Racicot has had some notable disagreements with GOP leaders in recent years, and he supported independent candidate Gary Buchanan over Rosendale for the eastern district seat in the 2022 election. He also received a rebuke from the state Republican Party Executive Committee for endorsing other candidates over GOP nominees. Still, Racicot and Krautter both told MTN they believe many voters in the Republican primary will be looking for an alternative to polarized politics.

“I do believe that there are people looking for a new generation of leadership and that want to turn a page on the division and the anger that we're seeing in Washington, because it's not doing anything to balance our federal budget, to secure the border or to help Montana agriculture and small businesses,” said Krautter.

Ric Holden is a rancher from Dawson County, near Glendive, who announced his own candidacy for the U.S. House in September. It’s his first foray into politics since he served eight years in the Montana Senate, from 1995 to 2002.

“We need to turn the economy around, we need to once again become energy independent, we need to do everything that we can so that Eastern Montana's prosperous again – and for us, that means we need to drill oil, pump oil, we need to use our coal reserves and we need to generate some electricity with the natural resources that we got,” he said.

Holden and his family raise sheep, cattle, alfalfa, corn and grain crops. In addition, he works as an insurance adjuster. He says he wants to make sure agricultural producers in Montana have a voice in Washington, D.C., and one of his main goals if elected would be to secure a place on an agriculture committee. He also identified border security and addressing inflation as priorities.

Holden told MTN he’s sharing his message by traveling to small towns across the district and by doing interviews with local papers and radio stations.

“It doesn't matter if you're running for city council or running for the U.S. Congress, people need to recognize your name,” he said. “I think for me, coming from the rural areas that I do represent, the people understand what it takes out there to run our economy, and they're looking for somebody that comes from the country to represent our state. So I think once the word of mouth gets around, I think the name recognition is going to follow.”

Ed Walker, of Billings, served as a state senator from 2011 to 2014. He’s also pursued a seat in Congress once before – during the 2017 special election to fill Montana’s then-statewide House seat, he was one of the candidates for the Republican nomination, decided at a party convention. He says he’s the right choice for a district with a strong conservative lean.

“Montanans in the eastern part of the state are really looking for a proven conservative, one with a conservative record and one that is a Montanan who knows the issues and is able to get out amongst the people,” Walker said.

Walker told MTN that, after speaking to Rosendale, he was convinced the incumbent is going to jump into the Senate race and the House seat will be open. He said he decided to step forward as a candidate immediately to give himself time to put together a campaign – and he believes all the candidates will have to put in work to connect with voters.

“The truth is that we do need to get our name out there, we have to introduce ourselves to the people,” he said. “I don't think that my name ID is much different than anybody else who’s going to be getting in the race, frankly. And so right now, it's just a matter of raising the funds that I need and being able to get out and talk to the people in their communities, in their homes and find out what's what are the issues that are important to them and champion those things.”

Walker says he plans to highlight his experience in the energy sector, where he’s worked for the industrial construction company Loenbro.

The only first-time candidate in the GOP field so far is Stacy Zinn, who says she’s taking a first step into politics after making her career with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Zinn says she worked as a special agent, including in South America and Afghanistan, before eventually becoming supervisor of DEA operations in Montana. She says she left the agency after reaching the mandatory retirement age for an agent.

“I've spent close to 23 years trying to protect our communities, protect our children, and going after those that are spreading poisons throughout the world,” she said. “And at age 57, when you get cut off like that, I'm like, ‘You know what? I just can't retire, I can't sit on my hands and watch while we are in turmoil, we're in chaos.”

Zinn says drugs and related violence are becoming larger issues within Montana. She said her job gave her an understanding of border issues, dealings with foreign governments and the negative impacts of operating government agencies under continuing resolutions.

While Zinn hasn’t campaigned for office before, she said she has made connections around the district already. As part of her DEA work, she traveled to various rural communities and met with residents to talk about their concerns on drugs and crime.

“My goal is to continuously communicate to the public, but also opening the door for communications from them,” she said. “I feel like I will stand out that way, just getting boots to the ground and listening to people. I think we’ve stopped listening.”

There’s no guarantee these will be the only people jumping into this Republican race. Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci of Sun River has already told MTN he plans to file for the House immediately if Rosendale announces a Senate campaign.

When asked what a GOP primary with seven candidates or more might look like, candidates have different views.

“I think we're all going to be talking about the issues that are important to us and important to the people of the district,” said Walker. “I don't see it being contentious; I see it being just kind of a bunch of people who are wanting to get out and get their ideas put across and meet people where they are.”

“It's going to be a hard-fought Republican primary, no doubt about it,” said Holden. “It could very well come down to a few hundred votes either way amongst any of the candidates. It's going to be a real knock-down, drag-out – you might want to call it ‘The Hunger Games’ if you want to.”

There are also two Democratic candidates running so far in the eastern congressional district: Kevin Hamm, a Helena business owner and president of Montana Pride, and Ming Cabrera, a former pharmaceutical sales representative from Billings.