Despite the primary races to represent the Public Service Commission’s northwestern District 4 coming to a close Tuesday, candidates continued to hash out fights within their own parties Wednesday, illustrating continuing divisions between moderates and hardliners in both parties.
In the Republican primary, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder bested former state party chair Will Deschamps, marking one of multiple Republican primary races lost by moderates to a surging right wing on Tuesday. Fielder garnered 45% of the vote, 16,662, to Deschamps' 35%, or 13,038.
Deschamps said when he saw Ravalli County’s closely watched Republican senate district primary going in favor of the hard right candidate, Theresa Manzella, he knew it was over for him.
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“Fielder has always been known as a firebrand in the party, and she tied her campaign to Manzella’s wagon. She met with the Bundys, wants to take all of the federal lands and put it on the state, which then the states would have no way of paying for anything during fire season,” he said, referring to cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan, who led armed standoffs with federal agents in both Oregon and Nevada based on the belief the federal government can’t own public land.
“If you wanted to run in Sanders County and get an endorsement from Fielder’s group, they make you sign a thing saying you need to do A, B, and C or they’ll have you removed. Lincoln County has it, Cascade had it before. That’s just un-American, for goodness sake. If someone wants to run for office, they should be able to without having to kowtow to people.”
But Fielder denied she has ever taken part in such a thing.
“That’s complete baloney, and it’s the type of thing that’s shaken confidence in him in the party. I think he’s making it up. I’ve never heard of anything like that,” she said. “I think Montana Republicans spoke loud and clear. That’s the similarity I see (between Manzella’s race and mine). Voters paid more attention to what they’ve done with the power given to them by the people.”
Fielder said she didn’t see the PSC, which oversees Montana’s monopoly energy utilities, as a particularly partisan body, and that she simply wanted to apply fair and objective judgment to cases before the quasi-judicial body.
Even if the PSC isn't considered especially partisan, particularly because it has been composed entirely of Republicans for the past decade, it has not escaped the rancor of a deeply divided political body. Its most notable imbroglio involved one commissioner filing records requests for another’s emails, which then turned up on a right-wing political blog, a Billings Gazette investigation found.
Deschamps said he had run for the seat because the commission needed an “adult in the room.” Fielder agreed that work needed to be done to get the commission off the front page of the newspapers and back to the task at hand, but cited her working relationship with the current commissioners as the best way to do that.
“The drama is a distraction, and I won’t participate; we’ve got to take care of business,” she said. “I will bring that to the table. I’ve been identified among my peers as the person of conscience in the Republican Party and kept people honest, whether they’re in my party or not.”
But Deschamps was skeptical that Fielder and other members of the so-called ".38 Special" group of Montana Republicans unwilling to cross party lines could be effective in achieving results and serving constituents.
“We have these firebrands that aren't afraid to stand up in the Legislature and vote no on every single thing,” he said. “That’s not what they’re sent to Helena to do. You’re supposed to represent your constituents to the best of your ability and see they’re taken care of. Just saying ‘no’ doesn’t close the deal.”
When asked about serving a broader swath of constituents versus holding a hard party line, Fielder said her duty was to the Constitution and to “carry out her duties with fidelity,” saying she didn’t think that made her an extremist.
In District 4's Democratic primary, Monica Tranel prevailed over Daniel Carlino, who ran a campaign in line with ideals of the Green New Deal, which calls for transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewables as quickly as possible. Tranel took 77% of the vote, with 25,882 votes, and Carlino 23%, with 7,782.
Tranel said she believed voters sided with her because she had more technical experience, having worked as an attorney in the field for decades, and would bring leadership needed to fix the PSC's dysfunction.
But Carlino, a climate change activist and recent University of Montana graduate, said he wouldn't be supporting Tranel in any meaningful way unless she signed a pledge saying she would never accept funding from fossil fuel CEOs or lobbyists.
Carlino framed the race as a loss based on money and the workings of a moderate establishment.
"I think I have the winning message even though I didn't win the election," he said. "The Democratic establishment endorsed her and helped her out. I think I was out-fundraised six times over. But overall her message doesn't match with what climate science demands."
Tranel, however, said that she thinks the current state of affairs in the United States has people hungry for experienced leaders.
"The PSC is a very technical, knowledge specific area," she said "We have seen what happens when retired Republican legislators go over there. That doesn't work, and it doesn't change a thing."