At this point, there are at least nine people running to challenge Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Greg Gianforte in November. The parties will select their candidates in the primary elections in June. Between now and then, MTPR will be checking in with voters across Montana to hear what issues are important to them, and what they’re looking for in a candidate.
Last week, Nora Saks chatted with some members of Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers at an event they held at Missoula’s Highlander Brewing Company.
There was less camouflage than one might expect, but lots of people were sporting matching shirts that say “Public Land Owner” in all caps.
A tall, youngish guy in a wool cap gathers the crowd and starts talking loud and fast.
"We don’t have a microphone and there’s a lot of people who want to drink beer in here, so I won’t say too much, besides this public lands legacy that was gifted to us didn’t happen by accident and it won’t be carried forward by accident either," says Land Tawney. "It’s by people in this room that will make sure that gets carried forward.”
Land Tawney is the President and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The group doesn’t endorse individual candidates. Instead it strives to educate its members on current public lands issues, which is what brought Mark Faroni out tonight. He’s an outfitter from Dixon.
“We run guided fly fishing trips throughout the summer," Faroni says. "Big Hole. Beaverhead. Blackfoot. Clark Fork.”
He says he’s been following the congressional races here and there.
“I’m definitely going to support Tester because of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship. He’s been a very avid supporter of public land. Gianforte, I gotta see who’s running against him," says Faroni.
As for what he’s looking for in those other candidates?
“Definitely somebody that’s going to be in support of public lands and I’m also going to be looking to see who is supporting them. I’m very concerned about the dark money that is coming in, i.e. the Koch Brothers financing some of these politicians. I’m not going to support anyone that’s taking money from them," Faroni says.
Trey Curtiss was there celebrating his 24th birthday. Ivory teeth dangle off the front of his Stormy Kromer hat. He does outreach for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and is also a fellow with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says when it comes to land, it’s personal.
“My family had a ranch growing up. It’s no longer in my family. And that’s land I will never get back," says Curtiss. "And so it’s really important to me that we uphold these public lands because once we lose that - we’ll never get that back.”
Public land and wildlife conservation are pretty much all he thinks about. And when it comes to elected officials, if they don’t support those values, he plans to hold their feet to the fire.
“First and foremost is keeping public lands public. Keeping them in federal control. Then having those conversations about different public lands policies and how to manage those lands," Curtiss says.
It’s a male-dominated event, but there are some women too. Brita Gilmore is perched at the bar, waiting while her husband, who’s a hunter, orders beer. She’s from Missoula, born and raised, and says this election, she’s paying close attention to where candidates stand on a wide range of issues.
“The women’s issues, the wilderness bills, healthcare, education," says Gilmore.
She says she’ll likely vote for Tester, but not for the incumbent in the U.S. House race.
"I’m really not a proponent of what Gianforte stands for," says Gilmore.
Nora Saks: So what would you be looking for in someone running against him?
"Someone that wants to keep the environment and basically global warming issues, and anything basically that’s Democratic," Gilmore says.
Bob Andrews, from Lolo, has just come in from skiing, and has a different take. He says he’s undecided about the U.S. House race.
“I really don’t want somebody that’s walking the party lines, to be honest with you," says Andrews. "I really want somebody who is looking at the issues, and has an ability to communicate what the people of Montana want. Rather than what some other constituency that’s not based with the people of Montana.”
Gerhardt Soeffker, from Missoula, says he hasn’t been following the races closely just yet. But he’s excited that more people are getting engaged with public lands issues.
“Senator Tester has done a pretty outstanding job so far representing a very diverse group of constituents, from loggers and miners to fly fishermen and backcountry skiers," Soeffker says.
He’s impressed with his multi-use approach and the way he’s represented this rural state as a Democrat, and plans to vote for him again.
While it’s still early days for the races for Montana’s seats in the U.S. House and Senate, Emmon Snyder, a life long hunter and active supporter of BHA, summed up what was on the minds of many who turned out for pint night.
“Public land needs to stay in public hands. And that’s definitely a key issue that I’ll be voting on," Snyder says.
We’ll be hearing more from voters in other parts of Montana between now and the primary elections in June.