Editor’s note: This is the first of MTN’s multi-part series on contested state primary election contests. Ballots will be mailed to all voters May 8.
Senate President Scott Sales of Bozeman was the first Republican to jump into the race for Montana’s open secretary of state seat last year – but was hardly the last.
By the time the filing deadline came in early March, five other Republicans got into the contest, including a statewide officeholder, a public service commissioner, another state lawmaker and the chief deputy of the current secretary of state.
Now, they’re scrambling to become known to voters in this low-profile race, restricted to online, media and telephone campaigning in the coronavirus lockdown world.
“It’s hard to even get interest in the election right now,” says Christi Jacobsen, the current deputy secretary of state, and one of the six candidates. “All of the stories around the state and the country are about the coronavirus and how to protect yourself and how to keep your family safe.”
The secretary of state is the chief election officer for Montana. Incumbent Republican Corey Stapleton is running for the U.S. House, creating an open seat.
Only one Democrat has filed for the seat and will advance to the general election: State Sen. Bryce Bennett of Missoula.
Mail ballots go out to all voters starting May 8, and voters in the GOP primary will choose Bennett’s Republican opponent by Election Day, June 2.
MTN News spoke with all but one of the Republican candidates, asking them why they’d be the best choice for the job, and to take on Democrat Bennett in the fall:
Bowen Greenwood: He won statewide election in 2018 as clerk of the Montana Supreme Court, but says he cares deeply about election law, so he decided to run for secretary of state.
Montana voters have already elected him to a statewide office, so they’re familiar with him and would vote for him again, in the general election, he said.
Greenwood served as press secretary for the secretary of state’s office from 2006-2009, so he said he’s familiar with the office and the job. He said he’d like the office to be more involved in voter registration and would create a position to investigate complaints of voting irregularities.
Christi Jacobsen: She said what separates her from her opponents is that she’s been doing many of the jobs of secretary of state and could step into the job immediately – and, that she wants to keep the job, rather than “job-hopping” to another office in the future.
Jacobsen said she’d continue the work began under Stapleton and her work as chief deputy, such as making the office more efficient with fewer employees and replacing an outdated computerized election system with one that has greater security.
Brad Johnson: Currently the chair of the state Public Service Commissioner, Johnson also served as secretary of state from 2005-2009. He says with election systems facing security threats and other challenges, the office needs someone who’s experienced, “and I think I’m that guy.”
Johnson said he supports photo-identification requirements for voters, wants to acquire better technology to verify signatures on absentee ballots and would support getting rid of same-day voter registration and ending registration on the Friday before the election.
Forrest Mandeville: A state representative from Columbus, Mandeville notes that the secretary of state’s office also deals with business registration documents – and that he’s the only candidate who runs a small business for a living.
“Everyone says they’re going to be a friend to business, but with me, I won’t only be a friend, I’ll be a peer,” he says.
He says his experience as a legislator on election issues makes him a good choice for the job, and that he’s not a political insider, and could buck tradition when necessary.
Scott Sales: Sales said he’s a good choice for the job because of his wide experience as a legislator and his background in outfitting and agriculture. The secretary of state sits on the state Land Board, which sets policy on public access and use of state lands, and no other candidate has his experience in those areas, he said.
Sales noted that he’s been endorsed by more than 100 Montana legislators and former legislators, and that his broad support base would help him win the general election against Bennett.
The sixth Republican in the race, Kurt Johnson of Missoula, has had no visible campaign and listed no contact information when he filed as a candidate.