The ‘Rift’

By Beacon Staff

When Flathead Republicans head to their state convention this weekend in Helena, they find their party between a rock and a hard place.

The 2007 Legislature was a political rock most GOP lawmakers felt they were banging their heads against in a futile attempt to achieve property tax cuts with a billion dollar surplus. Republicans, Democrats and Gov. Brian Schweitzer all came away from one of the most bitterly partisan and rowdy sessions in state history with bruised and battered images. But the Dems, at least, emerged from the wreckage having achieved much of what they wanted.

All of which makes the 2008 elections a potential hard place for Republicans. With 17 months to prepare, the party has ample time to regroup, and the strategizing commences this weekend with the election of Erik Iverson, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s chief of staff, as party chairman.

Iverson, 33, is running unopposed and will take the reins of a party that ¬¬¬some Republicans and outside observers say is suffering from a rift between moderates and conservatives in the wake of the Legislature.

“There’s a real risk of some fratricide going on in the party,” said Craig Wilson, political science professor at MSU-Billings. “There is a possibility of weakening of the Republican position if this kind of infighting continues.”

Any infighting stems largely from the May move by a handful of mostly moderate House Republicans to meet with Schweitzer’s staff at a log cabin outside of Helena prior to the 2007 special session to hammer out a compromise budget. Picking off a few Republican votes, Schweitzer successfully moved the budget bill through the GOP-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate to end the session.

Immediately upon adjournment, Republicans replaced Majority Leader Mike Lange of Billings with fellow Billings lawmaker Dennis Himmelberger. Lange, among the “log cabin” Republicans, was already a controversial figure during the regular session after launching a now infamous profanity-laced tirade against Schweitzer.

Will there be further consequences for compromise?

Former Lakeside Republican representative Bernie Olson said his party recruited a more conservative candidate, Mark Blasdel of Somers, to run against him after Olson compromised with Democrats on the education bill in the 2005 special session.

Olson thinks Republicans who compromised in 2007 could be subject to the same treatment by his party’s conservative leadership – which, he said, resembles Libertarians or Constitution party members more than traditional, mainstream Republicans.

“Anybody that doesn’t go along with their philosophy gets chastised and attacked,” Olson said. “They’re going to get those people.”

Bigfork moderate Republican Bill Jones was not among the “log cabin” Republicans, though he did vote for the budget bill. While unable to attend this weekend’s convention, he said he wonders if he will face a tough reelection battle against a more conservative candidate.

According to Wilson, the “schism” between conservative and moderate Republicans is not limited to a few key issues, but extends to “sort of their overall, political view of the world.”

“Aggressive primary campaigns” can be detrimental to Republicans’ electoral success, Wilson said, if two candidates spend the primary engaging in “tit for tat,” and providing political ammunition for Democrats in the general election.

“It hurts,” Wilson added.

Some more conservative Flathead Republicans acknowledge their party’s internal tension, though they differ on its cause and severity.

Rep. Jon Sonju of Kalispell acknowledges a rift “to a certain extent, on certain issues.”

“There’s probably a few hard feelings,” Sonju said of the “log cabin” Republicans’ compromise with Schweitzer, but he chalks it up to a communications breakdown that allowed the deal making to go down unbeknownst to House leadership.

“What can we do to communicate better among all of us?” Sonju said. “You better know where everybody is at all times.”

Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell sees any perceived rift among Montana Republicans as a difference in personalities, not philosophies.

“What happened in the end was probably going to happen no matter what,” Barkus said of the compromise. “I don’t think anybody’s holding any grudges.”

Republicans have been too reactive to recent ballot initiatives and voting changes that drew liberal voters to the polls in the most recent election, he said, listing same-day voter registration, minimum wage initiatives and a measure in Missoula to reduce punishments for marijuana violations.

“We have to become more proactive in addressing these issues head on,” Barkus said, but that’s about the extent of the GOP’s obstacles in his opinion. “I don’t necessarily think we’ve got huge problems that need to be addressed.”

Iverson agrees with Barkus and Sonju, both on the need for Republicans to develop better strategies as well as an inflated perception of any rift.

“I don’t buy into the fact that the rift is as big as Democrats and the media want to portray,” Iverson said. “We have some policy differences but they don’t have to become personal and they’re not becoming personal.”

As chief of staff for Montana’s highest ranking Republican elected official and widely credited with turning former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns’ senate campaign around in its final weeks, Iverson’s pedigree as a political strategist comes highly regarded.

“He’s a good choice,” Wilson of MSU-Billings said, adding that Iverson “doesn’t come across as an ideologue.”

Iverson is candid about where Republicans need to improve, and much of it concerns modernization. The Web sites of GOP lawmakers and candidates are usually inferior to Democrats, Iverson said, and the online community of Democratic bloggers in Montana dwarfs that of Republicans as well. He also plans to court college-age and American Indian voters, demographics that usually vote Democrat.

He cites the recent defeat of Republicans in a Ravalli County Commission election as a perfect example of GOP candidates engaging in misdirected campaigning toward an electorate that existed 30 years ago.

“We need to modernize ourselves,” Iverson said. “We can’t continue to think it’s 1977, instead of 2007.”

But Iverson takes heart in Republican victories in 2006, when the Montana House was the only legislative branch in the United States to flip to GOP control. He believes Republicans can expand their majority in the House and plans to gun hard for open Senate seats in Trout Creek and Glasgow, where moderate Democrats Jim Elliott and Sam Kitzenberg are term-limited.

“I believe that as a party we’re poised to make some real gains in 2008,” Iverson said. “The signs are positive.”

Wilson agrees that Republicans have a shot to make gains for legislative seats, but incumbent higher office holders will be tough to beat. Schweitzer, Rehberg, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Secretary of State Brad Johnson look secure, Wilson said.

Former House Majority Leader Lange has been calling colleagues to ask for their endorsement as a candidate to challenge Baucus – a race Wilson said would be an “extremely difficult” uphill fight for Lange against Baucus’ fundraising power.

“They don’t appear to have any credible candidates to run for governor or senate,” Wilson said of Republicans. “The next election Montanans are going to be ticket-splitters once again.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.