On the night of their first ever presidential caucus, Montana Republicans voted resoundingly for Mitt Romney, and found themselves diverging from fellow party members across the United States. Super Tuesday saw Republicans generously hand presidential frontrunner status to Arizona Sen. John McCain with wins in nine states. And if the night held any surprises, it was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s strong showing across the South, winning five states. Two days later, Romney bowed out of the race altogether.
State GOP Chairman Erik Iverson said Romney ending his campaign after winning in Montana demonstrates how important it was to hold a caucus when Republicans could still choose among several candidates.
“There is no greater validation for our decision to move the caucus up to Feb. 5,” Iverson said. “If we kept the primary in June, there wouldn’t have been any choice – it would have been John McCain.”
Iverson also pointed out that Romney’s suspension of the campaign allows him to retain the delegates he has won to potentially use as bargaining tools down the road. Should Romney formally drop out, Montana’s 25 delegates to the Republican national convention are free to vote as they please, Iverson added.
While the Flathead County caucus went off relatively smoothly, the event provided a window into some of the challenges facing Republicans at the local and national level in the current election season, including whether McCain can garner the support of conservatives, whether local voters dissatisfied with the caucus process want to see it continue and whether the state GOP can retain the interest of energetic Ron Paul supporters.
Libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished second – statewide and locally – but his supporters were far more vocal, visible and passionate the night of the Flathead caucus than any other candidate. David Hart, state coordinator for Paul’s campaign, said many of the new volunteers GOP officials were citing as evidence of the caucus’s success were actually impassioned Paul supporters. Many Republicans now wonder, with the caucus over, will Paul supporters stick around?
“I definitely want to retain them,” Iverson said of Paul supporters. “My job is to get them engaged, and in turn, they can have a seat at the table in our party.”
Hart is encouraging Paul supporters to remain engaged in the political process.
“This movement will continue, regardless of what happens with the campaign,” Hart said. “If we want to see the changes that we want to see, we’ve got to get involved at the local and state levels.”
But Hart was firm that Paul supporters would never pledge blind loyalty to the GOP, and would not support candidates with whom they fundamentally disagreed on such crucial issues as foreign policy, monetary policy, or the size of government. If Paul supporters remain under the Republican tent in the coming year, there is likely to be some friction. When asked whether Paul’s supporters would help campaign for McCain, Hart’s reply was succinct: “Absolutely not.”
McCain’s nomination now looks inevitable, but along with that privilege comes a severe backlash by conservatives within his party – a backlash on full display at the Flathead caucus and not limited to Paul supporters. Prior to voting, supporters got up to speak for their candidates. But when Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, called for a McCain supporter to speak, no one stepped forward. One young man raised his hand and asked if he could speak against McCain, but Barkus sought a supporter.
Finally, Dean Jellison of Kalispell stood and – rather than touting McCain’s strengths – he listed the numerous instances where McCain had gone against the conservative branch of his party: voting against the Bush tax cuts; the passage of campaign finance reform; and McCain’s bipartisan push with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., for immigration reform that many conservatives viewed as amnesty for illegal aliens.
As audience members rolled their eyes, Jellison emphasized that in those instances McCain was consistently “doing what he believed to be right” and “on his way to becoming our leader.” But the Republicans were not swayed. McCain came in fourth with nine votes.
Several Republicans who had not been selected as precinct captains – and thus could not vote – were clearly concerned that their voices would not be heard. Standing before the audience of more than 100 people prior to voting, Barkus fielded some angry questions. One woman expressed her frustration that her only chance to vote in a primary election would be in June.
“If I vote, and you guys have already made your vote, what difference does it make if I vote?” she asked.
“It doesn’t, really,” Barkus replied.
Another man shouted from the balcony: “How do we bring the vote back to the people?” Barkus answered with the points made by GOP caucus supporters for months – that a June primary was so late in the presidential calendar as to make Montanans’ votes irrelevant anyway. He also said the caucus had encouraged hundreds of new volunteers across the state to get involved. But that answer was cold comfort to those who couldn’t vote.
“I got robbed,” said Loyd Foster of Kalispell. “Somewhere I have a precinct captain tonight who’s going to vote, and that precinct captain has no idea what I think.”
“It’s a screwed up system any way you look at it,” Foster added.
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