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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

2024 Election breakdown: Attorney General race

Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building in Helena, MT.
Shaylee Ragar
Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building in Helena, MT.

Corin Cates-Carney: Set the stage for us. Who’s running for attorney general this year?

Aaron Bolton: There are three candidates in all, two Republicans and one Democrat. That’s setting up a Republican primary between incumbent Austin Knudsen and Logan Olsen.

Olsen hasn’t responded to MTPR’s requests to fill out a survey detailing his experience and background. Olsen also doesn’t appear to have a campaign website or social media page. And his most recent campaign finance reports show he hasn’t raised any money. So, Knudsen doesn't have much of a challenge to win the republican primary.

There is no primary race on the democratic side. Ben Alke, a Bozeman-based attorney, is running unopposed.

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Corin Cates-Carney: So, we have a likely Alke-Knudsen matchup this fall. Alke is a political newcomer. What can you tell us about him and why he’s running?

Aaron Bolton: Alke is an attorney that’s worked primarily in business law but has also worked on other cases involving land disputes, health care and constitutional law, according to his profile at the law firm he currently works for.

When I asked him why he decided to run, he pointed at Knudsen’s record.

Ben Alke: And he’s done things in the office that are so inappropriate, I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines and not doing anything about it. So, I decided to run.

Corin Cates-Carney: What exactly is he taking issue with?

Aaron Bolton: He says Knudsen is politicizing the office by focusing on culture war issues like immigration and the southern border.

Corin Cates-Carney: This is a politically elected office, and we’ll get to Knudsen’s record shortly. But what else does Alke say about his motivations to run?

Aaron Bolton: He seems really focused on making this race a referendum on Knudsen. He also pointed to Knudsen’s contentious relationship with the Montana State Supreme Court. Knudsen’s office told the court it wouldn’t follow a ruling and made other remarks a state ethics office said undermined public confidence in the court. Knudsen faces dozens of alleged ethical violations.

Alke said that Knudsen’s recent spat with supporters of a ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution is also evidence of political interference.

Ben Alke: He tried to claim that it was legally sufficient when it clearly was legally sufficient.

Aaron Bolton: The Supreme Court found the ballot measure to be legally sufficient. It also threw out the version of the initiative Knudsen wrote after that ruling. The court said it inaccurately represented what supporters were asking voters to approve.

Corin Cates-Carney: If Alke says Knudsen isn’t right for the job, why does he say he is?

Aaron Bolton: He said he’d like to focus more on consumer protection inside the state. One example he brought up was a farmer’s right to fix their own equipment rather than taking it to an expensive dealership for repairs.

But again, he’s largely focused on why Knudsen is bad for the job, like in this ad.

Ben Alke Ad: When I’m attorney general I’m going to restore the integrity and respect of the Montana Department of Justice.

Corin Cates-Carney: That has me wondering whether this strategy of running against Knudsen’s record makes him a real contender this fall?

Aaron Bolton: Head of the UM School of Journalism and Political Analyst Lee Banville says it may work to a degree, but Alke can’t just hope voters are angry enough with Knudsen to vote for him.

Lee Banville: It’s certainly an uphill battle for Alke, who first of all has to establish a name for himself, get to be familiar with voters.

Corin Cates-Carney: I want to shift over to Knudsen. He’s a known name in the state. Former Roosevelt County Attorney and Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives. He was first elected to the office of Attorney General by double digits in 2020. What is his message to voters this year?

Aaron Bolton: It’s early in the campaign season. Knudsen hasn’t been campaigning much at this point and he wasn’t made available for an interview by deadline.

But he did answer MTPR’s election questionnaire, which you can find at mtpr.org.

He says voters can expect more of the same: a tough on crime approach to Montana’s drug problems and him to continue pushing back against the Biden Administration.

These kinds of issues are common in his campaign material, like this ad:

Austin Knudsen ad: With 34 lawsuits against Joe Biden, Austin Knudsen is protecting us from the radical woke left, Biden's broken border and Biden's broken economy.

Aaron Bolton: He’s trying to make sure voters see him doing that. He recently spoke before Congress to encourage lawmakers to impeach U.S. Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas, arguing he has failed to secure the southern border.

Austin Knudsen video: The most devastating impact of the open border on Montana has been the massive quantities of Mexican cartel fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Aaron Bolton: Migrant encounters at the U.S.- Mexico border hit a record high at the end of last year. Alsoworth pointing out that the amount of drugs seized at the southern border are actuallytrending below their peak in 2021, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Corin Cates-Carney: Clearly, Knudsen thinks battling over national policies are winning issues for him. Do we know anything about how voters feel about that?

Aaron Bolton: Recent polls show immigration is a top issue for many Montana voters. Not as big as housing affordability or the economy and inflation, but it’s in the top handful of issues.

Corin Cates-Carney: What other issues could influence this race?

Aaron Bolton: Abortion is one of the high-profile issues we’ve seen this office weigh in on. The abortion ballot initiative we discussed earlier is an example of that.

Knudesn also has a record of supporting anti-abortion policies during his time in the Legislature.

Alke, again, criticized Knudsen’s handling of that ballot initiative.

The abortion access debate could drive voter turnout for democrats. But the same thing could happen on the republican side of the ticket.

The other issue that could be a factor is the Highway Patrol.The Daily Montanan recently reported that an internal survey found that nearly half of officers don’t feel optimistic about the direction of the patrol and its current leader, Knudsen.

Banville says it may not be the hottest issue in the race but is something voters may think about.

Lee Banville: Who’s going to do a better job of running a pretty sprawling law enforcement agency across the state of Montana? It’s wonky, but I think it’s one of the things that are critical to these elections.

Corin Cates-Carney: The Attorney General is Montana’s top law enforcement officer and one of the most prominent statewide elected positions in the state. That’s also been a springboard to other positions of power in the state.

Aaron Bolton: Yeah, the AG’s office has primarily been a launching pad for a gubernatorial run. Republican Marc Racicot and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, both former AGs, went on to be governor. Recently Republican Tim Fox unsuccessfully ran for the position after this time as AG. It’s also a position that’s preceded election to the Montana Supreme Court.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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