Montana’s GOP Caucus Tempting Target for Ron Paul Supporters

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Ron Paul supporter Terry Frisch found it was fairly easy to secure one of the limited spots that gets a direct vote in the state’s upcoming Republican caucus. Now he hopes other supporters of the presidential candidate will do the same.

Hundreds of Republican precinct positions are still open in Montana. They are among the 3,000 or so Republicans allowed to vote in the Feb. 5 caucus. Frisch said he believes it is a ripe opportunity for Paul supporters to push their man to the front.

Supporters of some other presidential candidates are also jockeying to get into the small group eligible to vote in the caucus, a new and relatively unique system that some say could provide supporters a chance to influence the outcome.

The Montana Republican Party says it is watching the developments, and has recommended to counties that they wait until January to fill the slots. That way, they can select from a larger pool of applicants rather than just pick the first people who come along.

Voting in the caucus, recently set up with rules this fall, is open only to those in the party — from statewide officeholders down to the rank-and-file precinct people. The state’s delegates to the GOP nominating convention are bound by the pick made in the state’s caucus.

And most of the unpaid posts are open — proving to be tempting low-hanging fruit for the campaigns of the presidential campaigns.

Paul supporters say they are actively securing the county-level precinct level positions.

“In some counties, people are looking at Ron Paul supporters and they are not sure who we are and what we are all about,” said state coordinator David Hart. “Some people are concerned there is going to be a change in the power base, and they should be.”

Montana doesn’t register voters by party, which in part led the GOP to craft the system. So far the party says it does not believe one candidate has been able to seize an unfair advantage.

“You don’t want one campaign who just happens to be the first in the state to stack the deck,” said Chris Wilcox, GOP executive director. “And in terms of building a Republican party, we don’t want people who are just going to come in and cast a vote and take off.”

The Republicans want to make sure that people taking a precinct job are really interested in working in the party, and may just vote for their favorite and then leave. Technically, the precinct position is supposed to discern the favorite of people living in their precinct and vote for that candidate — and stick around to help with the party’s gruntwork such as helping with local fundraisers.

Montana appears to be in a unique position among the states that have created new caucus rules to adjust to the big changes in the presidential primary schedule. The state traditionally held an open primary in June, a preference vote that was not binding on delegates of either party.

Montana Republicans decided this fall to establish and run their own caucus in February in order to attract interest from candidates and to help build local party offices. So far, none of the candidates have visited since the new rules were adopted, but the party says the campaigns have become more involved.

Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist who has studied the country’s primary system, says the Montana system stands out.

“It’s like a throwback to the old ways that parties worked, really pre-1972 when really it was all about delegates being decided by party insiders,” he said. “That’s an unusual type of format, very peculiar to Montana.”

Montana modeled its system after Wyoming, where county level precinct people get to pick 12 of the state’s delegates. But in Wyoming, the delegates are not bound to stick with their presidential candidate. And since their state’s precinct positions remains about full, there is no rush for open jobs.

Overall, about a third of the 1,740 Montana precinct jobs were filled in August, the GOP said. Since then, 329 have been filled as of mid-December. Some counties have decided to wait until January to fill the rest, based on advice from state headquarters to make sure they pick people who will stick with the party.

William Mayer, a presidential primary expert at Northeastern University in Boston, said the closed caucus open to just party insiders may mean that the elections Montana is holding for precinct workers just adds one more step in the presidential nomination process.

He said the elections to nominate those precinct nominees could be tied to who they support. And he doubts they will stick around much after the caucus, especially if they backed a loser.

“Once they discover how dull the typical precinct responsibilities are, it’s just nothing to keep them involved frankly,” Mayer said.

Mayer said it’s hard to say what result the unique system will have.

Frisch, the ardent Paul supporter, said he found that the Lewis and Clark County GOP had 80 openings for precinct positions when he asked for a spot recently. He was given one, and no one asked him who he was supporting.

“I think some candidates aren’t doing anything in this state,” he said. “I think by far Ron Paul has the most activity.”

“A lot more people who support Ron Paul are interested in filling these vacancies.”

Montana Republican Party Chairman Erik Iverson said he believes there is healthy competition for the open spots, and the rush to fill them is creating the desired effect — a more robust GOP grass roots.

“This is the first time we have done anything like this, so we are learning as we go,” Iverson said. “We feel pretty good that everyone is doing this in a healthy, competitive way, and doing it in the spirit that will make all Montana Republicans proud.”

Iverson said that the right GOP field could mean the nomination is still in play come Feb. 5, and every delegate may be needed. Montana might just mean something, he said.

The campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney thinks so. It is one of three, with Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to start organizing in the state.

“We are really trying to win this caucus,” said Chuck Denowh, Romney’s director in the state. “We think it’s very important to have a successful caucus in Montana.”

The presidential campaigns said many Republicans don’t yet know about the caucus format, and need to be educated about how they can now get involved at the local level.

Mayer said he doubts the Montana Feb. 5 caucus will sway the outcome nationally. The state has few delegates, and so many other states have moved their primary or caucus up even sooner than before.

“I think the overwhelming consensus is that it will be settled by that day,” he said.