As Montana moves toward the June primary elections, a deep divide still exists between elements of the state legislature’s Republican caucus.
This split between moderate and conservative Republicans was most dramatically seen in the 2013 Montana Senate, where the GOP held a 29-21 majority over Democrats. The body almost seemed to have three caucuses, though, as a small group of Republicans regularly defied party leadership to side with Democrats on a number of key issues such as campaign spending law changes, school funding legislation, and state employee pension reform.
“It was hard to have one unified Republican voice, because you had people splitting off from the party, becoming divisive, crossing over and essentially acting like Democrats,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (R-Bozeman).
Wittich is one of the leaders of the more conservative wing of state republicans, which is recruiting far-right candidates to run against the 2013 moderates in this summer’s primary. He said some of these moderates come from very Republican Districts, so it’s not really the general election where the winner is picked. The decision, he said, is in the primary.
“Do people want to have that continued status-quo government growth or do they want some reform through conservative ideas,” he said.
“I would say the split hasn’t healed at all,” said Rep. Rob Cook (R-Conrad), who is with that group of moderate lawmakers branding themselves Responsible Republicans. “I don’t think there was any anticipation at all that it would before a series of primaries.”
Cook said the moderates did what they had to to work with a Democrat in the Governor’s office. He said the conservative wing of Republicans has imported “foreign angst” into Montana politics.
“Our budget situation is outstanding, our school system is outstanding, and if you were to listen to them talk you would think we were at the bottom of the world. They’ve kind of brought an apocalyptic fervor to Montana that isn’t warranted,” he said.
What’s happening with Republicans in Montana is reflective of what’s happening nationwide, with Tea Party candidates taking uncompromising stances on many social and fiscal issues.
“One big change in Montana is we are starting to reflect national trends far more than we did a couple decades ago,” said Carroll College Political Science Professor Jeremy Johnson, and he said that’s a big part of what’s happening with the state republican party.
There’s something else, though, with the legislature. Johnson said splits like this can tend to happen with large majorities.
“What unites a major political party the most is to have to fight against another majority from the other party,” he said, adding the state would likely see more defined splits in the Democratic caucus if they took over control of the legislature.
Some Republicans say they are actively working to bridge this divide in the state GOP.
“The last couple sessions we’ve had strong egos leading the legislative session,” said Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville), who voted largely with the conservative wing in the 2013 Legislature.
He said differences of opinion aren’t new, but this rift is more pronounced. He suggests the disparate elements of the party focus less on the areas where they disagree.
“Maybe we’re not gonna get to complete common ground on that, well let’s set that aside, we don’t need to bloody each other up, and come back to it in another session if that’s the case. Whatever needs to be done,” he said. “But let’s not haul bills out on the floor and make people look bad and throw a few rocks.”
Perhaps it will be easier to take that advice after the primaries.