The 2016 election season officially started Thursday, the first day Montanans could register as candidates for dozens of top state posts, ranging from governor and chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court to legislators and district judges.
In total, 124 people filed to formalize their candidacy, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said.
Opening day is an unofficial holiday for Montana politicians.
Dozens of people from across the state -- from Culbertson to Missoula -- drove to Helena to register in-person as candidates. Many incumbent legislators already were at the Capitol for a week filled with interim committee hearings.
Candidates must register before 5 p.m. March 14 to appear on the ballot for June 7 primaries. Many will wait until that deadline or announce on a different day over the next two months, in part, so they do not have to share the spotlight. That might be the plan of incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is expected to seek re-election, and Greg Gianforte, a presumed top Republican candidate who has said he will announce this month whether to make his exploratory campaign an official gubernatorial bid.
Legislative leaders from both parties leveraged filing day as an opportunity to tout campaign themes and priorities for the next legislative session in press conferences at the Capitol rotunda.
Sen. Robyn Driscoll, of Billings, touted that Democrats had gained legislative seats in the last two election cycles and pledged to do so again. She said the party’s diverse legislative membership is a key reason why Democrats are better equipped to serve all Montana residents, noting more than half are women and seven are Native Americans.
“I’d implore you to pay attention through March to the candidates that file for each party, and I ask you to think about what a difference it makes when we have a diverse legislature,” Driscoll said, noting that fewer than 20 percent of Republican legislators are women and just one is a Native American.
Each candidate stepped to the lectern to name their promises for the 2017 legislative session: to support public education from pre-K to college, fight privatization of public lands, protect voting rights and to invest in infrastructure.
Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said his party’s priorities include simplifying the tax code, removing red tape on resource development and “lowering taxes for all Montanans.”
“Today we take the first official step toward delivering majorities in the Montana House and the Montana Senate. … Montanans are fed up with radical Democrat policies,” Knudsen said, later alluding to Gianforte. “We’re excited about the prospect of having a successful businessman and Republican in the governor’s office.”
Although Gianforte was in the Capitol building during the Republican rally, he did not stand with legislators in the rotunda. One floor down, he sat in a subcommittee meeting on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and its potential effects on Colstrip.
“I’m trying to learn about the issues,” he said.
The Commissioner of Political Practices also capitalized on the crowds of filers to host training sessions on the state’s online campaign finance reporting system. Although versions have been available for years, this is the first election cycle that candidates in state-level races must use the system and follow new, stricter disclosure rules. From the website, voters and campaign staff can instantly see reports on who donated to which campaigns and how candidates have spent the money they raise.
“Obi-Wan Kenobi is going to be running,” joked Program Supervisor Mary Baker as she led a training session.
“We created some pretty weird names to test the system,” explained Kym Trujillo.
The filing day fun started early as six people waited outside the Secretary of State’s locked office at 7:30 a.m. to formalize their candidacy.
“It’s a huge honor to serve Montanans, so I decided to be first in line,” Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said, carrying a new backpack she bought at Staples for the re-election efforts ahead. “It’s going to be a long campaign.”
Opening day of candidate filing is one of McCulloch’s favorite days of the year. A flag garland hangs above the door, patriotic tinsel lines the desks and candidates are encouraged to take a red or blue cookie before leaving. McCulloch, wearing a sparkling blue cardigan, red shirt and flag-themed scarf, sits ready to review filing documents and to give each candidate a handshake.
“The decorations are, I think, a reflection of the fact you have an elementary school teacher in the secretary of state’s office,” said McCulloch, who is in her final term at the post. “Actually, this is kind of bittersweet because, after eight years, this is my last candidate opening day.”
Rep. Kathy Kelker, D- Billings, approached McCulloch’s desk and handed her a clipboard. The secretary of state ran her finger down the registration form, asked her to make a quick fix then smiled as she offered a handshake.
“Congratulations,” McCulloch said. “You are officially a candidate.”