By just 74 votes, Ann Bukacek appears to be the winner in a four-way Republican primary for Montana Public Service Commission, representing the Flathead region and Lewis and Clark County.
A physician best known as a long-time leader in Montana anti-abortion politics, Bukacek was a surprise entrant in the District 5 race for the PSC, which regulates monopolies, more specifically the state’s largest utilities NorthWestern Energy and MDU. In that capacity, the PSC affects the household budgets of more than 400,000 Montana utility customers. Those customers are legally recognized as “captive,” meaning they lack the free-market choice of shopping around for a better deal.
The commission is charged with assuring captive customers have reasonably priced, reliable electric and natural gas service, while assuring utilities receive a fixed rate of return.
Early Wednesday, The Montana Secretary of State flagged for possible recount the vote in PSC District 5. Bukacek’s closest challenger, legislator Derek Skees, has five days to request a recount, as his margin of defeat is less than one quarter of one percent of the total votes cast. Opponent Joe Dooling, of Helena, trailed by 713 votes.
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“Even though I’m very happy about it so far, I plan to consider the results uncertain for the next two days,” Bukacek said Wednesday. The conservative district typically elects Republicans in general elections.
In the other primaries for PSC, Whitefish resident John Repke defeated Helena resident Kevin Hamm with 54% of the vote in a rare District 5 Democratic primary. In District 1, which encompasses much of Eastern Montana, incumbent Randy Pinocci won reelection with 66% of the vote over challenger K. Webb Galbreath.
As ballots came in on election night, Bukacek appeared to take the lead early. She lives in Kalispell, as do Skees and candidate Dean Crabb. The county typically accounts for half the vote in PSC primaries and always produces at least one candidate for PSC.
There were more practiced candidates. Skees had run for PSC before. Candidate Joe Dooling, of Helena, was a congressional candidate in 2020.
Bukacek had never run for office, but her years challenging the Montana Legislature to pursue laws recognizing conception as the starting point for life was a longer campaign than any run for public office. Her frank message offended those who disagreed with her, but formulated grassroots support among those who did agree. She applied the same persistence to opposing COVID-19 mask mandates and questioning the safety of COVID vaccines, as well as the CDC record of the virus’s true impact, which Bukacek claimed was exaggerated by the government. In conservative Flathead County, Bukacek again drew support while opponents challenged her participation on the county health board
She didn’t campaign for the PSC on abortion politics, Bukacek said. Past commission candidates have. Voters know so little about utility regulation candidates sometimes succeed by virtue of signaling on issues completely unrelated to the job. She put out a rather long video explaining her positions on the job of commissioner and didn’t duck debates.
Bukacek didn’t win Flathead County. The hometown candidate that wins Flathead hasn’t won the district in past elections, which was true again Tuesday. Skees won 38% of the vote in Flathead County to Bukacek’s 32%. Those vote percentages flipped in neighboring Lake County, where Bukacek won 40% of the vote to 21% for Skees and 27% for Dooling. Dooling appeared to have the race narrowly won by midnight Wednesday.
Bukacek proposed giving the PSC a regulatory role over the Flathead Water Management Board, which governs water rights on Flathead Reservation under the water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the State of Montana. It is a five-person board with two members appointed by the Montana governor, two members appointed by CSKT, and a fifth member selected by the appointed board members.
The proposal is sure to stir controversy, as the water compact was a legally binding settlement of CSKT water rights that by treaty spanned a majority of primary Montana waterways and tributaries. The candidate’s proposal was the selling point in Lake County.
The compact has never set well with Republicans in Lake County, where much of the Flathead Reservation is located. Republicans who played a part in getting the compact ratified, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who carried the compact through Congress and secured former President Donald Trump’s approval, have faced backlash in Lake County for doing so, even while receiving approval for the work in other parts of the Montana.
Bukacek said her proposal, coupled with a frank approach with voters, is what helped her win the primary.
Tuesday, Bukacek traveled to Helena to shore up her support there with a “honk and wave” curbside solicitation to voters that plays out exactly as it sounds. She was flanked by 'Vote for Dr. Annie' signs and a posterboard message, which read “Honk for Lower Power Bills,” which people did. In a high inflation environment, one that Republicans have seized on nationally in a critical midterm election year, the message struck home, as the candidate’s positions have with conservatives for years.
Dooling, who held a 51% share of the Lewis and Clark County Republican vote, saw that local lead slip to 49% as the tally became final. Bukacek said the Election Day work, 11 hours on that corner in Helena paid off.
“People respond, in my perception, they respond to people who are genuine and that will be looking out for them and are there to serve the people, truly a servant leader, as opposed to somebody that’s self-serving, or somebody who’s ambitious,” Bukacek said.