HELENA — Former state Sen. Mike Taylor easily bested a five-man field Tuesday in the Republican primary for Public Service Commission District 5, setting up a key November match-up that will determine party control of the regulatory body.
With 76 percent of the precincts reporting late Tuesday, Taylor led with 44 percent of the vote, well ahead of second-place candidate Steve Vick, another former state legislator, who had 25 percent.
Trailing Vick were former Kalispell City Councilman Fred Leistiko with 15 percent, Kalispell truck driver John Campbell with 13 percent and Polson real estate agent Rory Horning with 3.5 percent.
Taylor now takes on Democrat Ken Toole of Helena in this open seat, which represents six western Montana counties that include Helena, Kalispell, Polson and the Rocky Mountain Front.
Toole, a state senator, has been a vocal critic of utility deregulation in Montana. Taylor initially voted for Montana's infamous 1997 electric utility deregulation bill, but became one of only five Republicans who voted against it on final, recorded votes.
The five-person PSC, which regulates utilities in Montana, has become a focal point in Montana's ongoing debate over utility deregulation.
Taylor said his victory Tuesday was a testament to hard work and a good corps of volunteers. He also said he was gratified to win despite some negative attacks from his opponents in the primary.
"The positive thing is that is shows that negative campaigning might not work," he said. "I also had a lot of good people out there, volunteers, who worked very hard."
Taylor also said he's expecting a tough battle against Toole in the fall.
"Senator Toole will go out and run a very confident, complete race, and we're going to have to do the same thing," he said. "People will realize that they can't just say this is a Republican-leaning district."
He said voters will see a clear contrast in how he and Toole view the world.
"I believe in the free-enterprise, less-government system, and (Toole) has a tendency to believe in more government and more controls," Taylor said.
However, Taylor said he recognizes that parts of Montana may face an unregulated monopoly in electricity, and that the PSC should work to address that problem.
Taylor, trying to resurrect his political career after a crushing defeat in Montana's 2002 U.S. Senate race, staked out an early lead in Tuesday's returns and never relinquished it. He won primarily on the strength of his showing in Flathead and Lake counties.
Vick appeared to win Lewis and Clark County, but it had far fewer Republican votes cast than Flathead and Lake.
Taylor, who spent $1 million of his own money in the 2002 Senate race, spent at least $27,000 of his own funds in the PSC primary contest. During the campaign, he touted the fact that he was one of only a few Republicans who voted "no" on Montana's infamous 1997 electric utility deregulation bill.
Vick voted for the bill, which some have blamed for higher electric rates for some Montana consumers.
Vick said Tuesday night that Taylor's money and name identification from having run a statewide race probably gave him the edge.
"You're always hopeful, but in a race like this, it's name ID (that wins it)," he said. "I just have to believe him being able to campaign full-time and putting a lot of his money into the race made the difference."
In PSC District 1, which covers north-central and northeast Montana, Commissioner Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, is running unopposed in the primary and general elections.
Taylor, 64, served in the Legislature as a state senator from 1997-2004, representing a district that included Polson and the west shore of Flathead Lake. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002 against Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., but lost by a 2-to-1 margin.
Taylor, a wealthy investor and businessman, grew up in Lewistown and Ohio and made his fortune operating hair salons and barber schools and selling beauty products in the Denver area.
Vick, 50, served as state representative from Belgrade from 1995-2001. He worked for the PSC as a program manager from 2001-04 and had been a real estate appraiser in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, before moving back to Montana shortly before the campaign began this spring.
He has been working in Helena as project manager for a home-building company.
Campbell, 53, has been a truck driver in Montana for the most of the past 25 years. He owns a dump truck and operates his own independent trucking company. Campbell ran for the PSC in 1994 and lost to then-Commissioner Bob Anderson, D-Helena, in an old district that included Helena and Great Falls.
Leistiko, 64, runs the Kalispell City Airport and served on the Kalispell City Council from 2000-03. He grew up in Simms and spent nearly 30 years in National Guard and Army, mostly in Ohio.
Horning, 55, owns a real estate brokerage in Polson. He grew up in Las Vegas and moved to Montana eight years ago. He ran a low-budget campaign, asking supporters to donate 25 cents each to his campaign fund.