Jonathan Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — 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.”

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.