Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) A Democrat running for Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction continued to outpace both Republicans in fundraising in the most recent quarter, and candidates are touting top endorsements as campaign season gets underway.

Democrat Shannon O’Brien, an educator and earlier policy advisor to former Gov. Steve Bullock, raised more than twice as much money through the end of the year as Republican and Townsend superintendent Susie Hedalen.

O’Brien raised $52,343 in the most recent quarter compared to Hedalen’s $20,175 for the primary election, according to the most recent reports filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.

O’Brien also outraised Hedalen in the third quarter of 2023.

However, Democrats have not secured statewide offices in Montana in recent election cycles. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, up for re-election this year, is the only Democrat to have won statewide since 2018.

Republican Elsie Arntzen won the superintendent of public instruction post the last two elections. Arntzen is termed out from that office but is among the Republicans running for U.S. House in the state’s eastern district since U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale announced he’s stepping into the U.S. Senate race.

Also in the race for superintendent, Republican Sharyl Allen raised $1,450. Allen, former deputy superintendent for the Office of Public Instruction, has a history of controversial departures from education positions including petitions for her termination.

In recent years, rising political tensions across the country are increasingly evident in education.

Some of the more controversial bills in Montana in 2023 focused on education, including ones currently being litigated as attempts to privatize public education.

Montana also has struggled with low starting teacher pay and ways to recruit educators, including teachers, to rural classrooms.

In the race for superintendent, Libertarian Kevin Leatherbarrow is listed as withdrawn, but Hedalen and O’Brien have been active on social media highlighting their big-name supporters and their work in education.

“I had the privilege of joining Governor Greg Gianforte and industry leaders yesterday in a roundtable discussion about how our schools can take their career and technical programs to the next level,” said Hedalen this week on social media. “Incredible partnerships and recent legislation allow us to build a brighter future for Montana students that positively impacts our workforce. #SusieForSchools.”

Republicans Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen both have endorsed Hedalen, who also serves on the Board of Public Education as a Gianforte appointment.

This week, O’Brien talked about history and justice in her social media campaign.

“During Black History Month, we take purposeful time to recognize and respect the history and vital contributions of Black Americans, and reflect on their legacy within our communities,” O’Brien said in a post. “As Montanans, we support and honor each other, and this month we highlight Black American stories so we all work towards understanding and acknowledging historical injustices in our history. In doing so, we can build a better understanding of the present day, and grow and celebrate community bonds throughout Montana.”

O’Brien also highlighted support from former Superintendents of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Nancy Keenan, also former head of the Montana Democratic Party.

O’Brien enters this quarter with $34,790 in the bank for the primary election and $7,350 for the general. She does not have a Democratic opponent for the primary.

Hedalen has $8,760 for the primary and $7,460 for the general.

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