To be or not to be a candidate. That is the question for Arntzen.

Campaign name suggests she’s exploring. Social media says something different.

By: - August 31, 2023 3:43 pm

Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, walks into Parental Rights Education Action meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana on November 1, 2021.

Is Elsie Arntzen running for Congress? Or is she just exploring?


That’s the official answer from the “Elsie Arntzen for Congress – Exploratory” committee.

But what seems to be a word choice or a nuance is something with larger implications, including federal fundraising and tracking requirements.

The Federal Elections Commission allows politicians to explore the idea of running for federal public office without all the requirements of becoming a candidate and filing expense reports. It’s a period known as “testing the waters,” and is often the prelude to a full-fledged campaign.

But exploratory committees are bound by different rules than candidates, and must not raise more than $5,000 or call themselves candidates if they are exploring a run or “testing the waters,” as is defined by the FEC.

Montana political observers noted that Arntzen’s social media account on X, formerly known as “Twitter,” had her declaring: “Creative thinking and problem solving aren’t Washington’s strong suit; I’m running for congress to bring conservative solutions to DC and to deliver real results for Montana.”

Arntzen will finish her second term as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state’s top education official. She is a Republican who also served in the Legislature, and cannot run again for superintendent because of term limits. She is also a former elementary school teacher from Billings.

Arnzten’s filings with the FEC list the official name of her committee as “Elsie Arntzen for Congress – Exploratory.”

Sam Rubino, the spokesperson for the campaign, told the Daily Montanan the committee was set up as “principal campaign committee” – a designation that puts her in compliance with federal law.

The state’s official filing period for Congress hasn’t begun, but that doesn’t prohibit candidates from campaigning.

Rubino insisted that Arntzen is both a candidate and exploring, since the make-up of the Republicans running in Montana’s Second Congressional District, which covers the central and eastern part of the state, is uncertain.

Current Congressman Matt Rosendale, also a Republican and former state legislator, hasn’t announced whether he’ll run again for what would be his third term in the United States House of Representatives, or if he’ll challenge incumbent Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, as widely expected. Rosendale, a far right-wing politician, has the support of many state politicians to take on Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy. Meanwhile, Montana’s other Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, is leading the U.S. Senate’s re-election committee for Republicans and has already endorsed political newcomer Tim Sheehy, setting up a potential showdown between an established Republican in Rosendale or the unknown Sheehy.

Both Arntzen and State Auditor Troy Downing, also a Republican, have said that they’re exploring a run for Congress, but only if Rosendale opts to challenge Tester.

Rubino said that’s what makes Arntzen’s committee “exploratory” – they’re only exploring if Rosendale leaves the House.

But a FEC spokeswoman said that the names aren’t the only thing the federal authorities consider when determining whether someone is officially running or just exploring.

Judith Ingram said, it depends on what the committee’s intent is.

“We are still deciding if she’ll run,” Rubino said. “She’s a candidate if Rosendale doesn’t.”

It’s uncertain whether any complaint has been filed against Arntzen because all FEC complaints are kept confidential until the five-person commission takes action on them.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.