Scrambling for Caucus Votes

By Beacon Staff

For the first time next year, Montana Republicans will choose their delegates to the national convention via precinct caucuses, rather than a primary election. The change was intended to increase Montana’s prominence on the national stage by eliminating a primary election held so late as to be irrelevant, though the caucus also carries some risk of alienating concerned Republicans who might now be unable to cast a vote.

Republican presidential campaigns, meanwhile, are grappling with how to advance their candidate in the new caucus system. Some campaigns are angling to place supporters of their candidates in open caucus seats, but other Republicans believe such a practice defies the purpose of the caucus and caucus voters should represent the preference of their district.

At a Flathead Republican Central Committee meeting last week, Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell and committee chair, told potential precinct voters their ballots should reflect the desires of their precinct, and not be “a testament to a political candidate.”

The voters in Montana’s GOP caucus, which will take place on Feb. 5 along with primaries in many other states, are elected precinct committeemen, as well as members of the state executive committee, county central committees, seated legislators and other incumbent officeholders – some 3,000 voters in all. Flathead Republicans have until Christmas Eve to submit an application to be a precinct committeeman or committeewoman.

At the Dec. 13 meeting, a stack of applications piled up to fill the 21 vacancies in Flathead County’s 95 precincts for those positions. Flathead Republican officers will vote Jan. 3 on candidates for any contested races. The 25 Montana delegates to the national GOP Convention must support the caucus winner, which they were not required to do previously.

The problem with the closed caucus is that unless you’re a Republican among those 3,000, you can’t vote on Feb. 5, so your influence over the election is limited to urging your representative precinct voter to pick your preferred candidate. Thus, criticism of the new caucus is that it removes power from the hands of many and places it in the hands of a few.

That previous “power,” however, was relatively nonexistent, since a June primary election – the traditional process – occurred so far behind other states that the party’s nominee had been decided already, making Montana’s primary meaningless. A bill in the 2007 Legislature to move the state primary up to February or March died due to the $1 million cost.

At the Flathead meeting, precinct voters talked about holding straw polls among Republicans in order to gauge voter sentiment, so the ballot for that precinct could be cast accordingly. But the caucus system butts up against the motivations of some campaigns, which have two ways to succeed: Convince a supporter of a certain candidate in an open precinct to apply to be the caucus voter, or persuade existing caucus voters to choose a certain candidate.

David Hart, state coordinator for Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul, is doing both. He has been calling and mailing party loyalists information including Paul’s anti-abortion and pro-gun rights positions and trying to motivate recipients in areas like Missoula, where a high number of open precincts remain, to become caucus voters. Hart is also racking up the endorsements of several Flathead state lawmakers, but is concerned that Paul supporters in open precincts across the state are simply unaware of the early deadline for submitting applications. The attention of many people doesn’t turn to politics until after the holidays.

“Most Montanans don’t even know the process has even happened,” he said, “and by the time they realize it, it’s going to be over and done.”

Chuck Denowh, a former executive director of the state GOP and a senior adviser for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, acknowledged that campaigning in Montana is odd with a closed caucus: It doesn’t make much sense to address a large crowd when the majority of that crowd can’t vote in the primary.

“It’s a unique situation because we have such a universe of well-defined voters,” Denowh said. “We’re scrambling right now to place our supporters into vacancies.”

As of Oct. 29, Romney led fundraising in the state, with $27,300 as of Oct. 29, according to Federal Election Commission data. Paul trailed him with $22,494. Romney has campaigned far harder in Montana than any other presidential candidate – Democrat or Republican – appearing at the GOP convention last summer and sending his son Josh and brother out to stump in recent months. But with a recent poll showing Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani garnering the highest approval ratings from Republican voters, it’s tough to decipher who leads in Montana.

“There’s still quite a few undecided voters,” Denowh said.

Polling data and fundraising statistics from October and November don’t account for the recent surge in early primary states by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Steve Daines, Montana chairman for Huckabee, said the campaign is simply enjoying the groundswell of national media attention and rising poll numbers for the candidate.

“Our view on this is just to get the Huckabee message out to Republicans in Montana,” Daines said. “The candidate is selling himself very well at the moment.”

Daines is not trying to place Huckabee supporters in open precincts, saying, “The caucus ought to represent the will of the Republicans in Montana.”

Barkus agrees that precinct voters should not have their minds made up already, but should vote based on the views of who they represent.

“I hope there is some sense of responsibility that they don’t do that,” Barkus said. “If a person gets appointed to serve a precinct, hopefully he or she will reflect the sentiment of that precinct.”