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The candidate filing period has begun, kicking off Montana's 2016 election season

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HELENA, Montana — The candidate filing period began Thursday, kicking off Montana's 2016 election season in which voters will decide whether to give Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke new terms in office.

This year's election also features races for four Montana statewide offices, three state Supreme Court seats, three Public Service Commissioner positions and 11 district judges.

Seven ballot measures so far have been approved for signature-gathering.

Republicans will try to hold on to their legislative majority, with races in 25 of 50 Senate seats and all 100 House seats. More than 30 Democrats gathered in the Capitol to file as legislative candidates, pledging to make gains on the GOP majorities in both chambers.

The Democratic Party candidates opened the campaign season with the message that voters should embrace the diversity they bring — women make up half the caucus and seven are Native Americans. They also plan to campaign on the 2014 Legislature's failure to pass an infrastructure bill, a sensitive issue for residents of eastern Montana where the Bakken oil boom has created the need to improve roads, water and sewer systems.

"If we'd had one more Democrat, we could have passed that bill," said Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings.

PHOTO: Democratic state House Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, left, fills out a candidate registration form as Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch looks on in Helena, Mont., on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The candidate filing period has begun, kicking off the 2016 election season in which the top races include those for president, governor, U.S. House, four statewide offices and 125 of the 150 legislative seats. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)
Democratic state House Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, left, fills out a candidate registration form as Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch looks on in Helena, Mont., on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The candidate filing period has begun, kicking off the 2016 election season in which the top races include those for president, governor, U.S. House, four statewide offices and 125 of the 150 legislative seats. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)

Forty-nine Republican candidates gathered later that afternoon and laid out their agenda to cut taxes and regulations and create a more business-friendly climate.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, highlighted two main points: fighting "the Obama administration agenda" and protecting the state's coal industry.

"The message is clear: Montanans have had enough of radical Democrat policies that restrict our freedoms, jeopardize our safety and security and strip good-paying jobs from hard-working Montana families," Knudsen said.

Bullock will likely face Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte in the general election. Gianforte, who would be making his first run for political office, has formed an exploratory committee.

Zinke, a first-term Republican from Whitefish, will be up against Democrat Denise Juneau, who is barred by term limits from running again as superintendent of public education.

A handful of legislative and judicial candidates waited outside Secretary of State Linda McCulloch's office Thursday to be the first to register when she opened the doors at 8 a.m. With this year being a presidential election, McCulloch said she expects more candidates to file than the 139 who ran in 2014.

The filing period ends on March 14.

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PHOTO: Candidates line up outside Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office to be the first to register as the 2016 candidate filing period begins, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in Helena, Mont. This year's top races include those for president, governor, U.S. House, four statewide offices and 125 of the 150 legislative seats. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)
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