HELENA – The Montana Republican Party announced Tuesday that Executive Director Jake Eaton had left his position to pursue other interests.
Eaton was at the center of the party’s recent effort to challenge the registrations of nearly 6,000 voters in the state. The party later withdrew those challenges, after being stung by accusations it was trying to suppress the vote in seven Democratic-leaning counties.
Eaton couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday evening, and a home phone number could not be located. Montana Republican Party spokesman Bridger Pierce declined comment when asked if Eaton’s departure was connected to the voter challenges.
The party said it had hired former state lawmaker Larry Grinde of Lewistown to replace Eaton.
Grinde served 14 years in the Montana House and was majority leader for eight of those years. He also ran the get-out-the-vote operation for Montana Republicans in 2006, and is past chairman of the Republican Legislative Candidates Committee.
Montana GOP Chairman Erik Iverson did not immediately return a telephone call Tuesday night but said in a statement that Grinde brings a “wealth of experience and knowledge to the job.”
“He will be a tremendous asset to our candidates as we ramp up our get-out-the-vote operation for the final stretch of the campaign,” Iverson said.
Eaton was promoted to state GOP executive director in March, when Chris Wilcox left the position to become campaign manager for gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown.
Before that, Eaton was the party’s finance and political director.
In late September, Republican leaders filed affidavits against 5,977 registered voters in seven Montana counties, claiming a change of address had invalidated their registrations. Five of those counties were among just six that went to Democrats in the last presidential election.
State and county election officials who had to investigate the claims were critical of the GOP move, which came just weeks before the November election.
Last week, Montana Democrats sued the GOP in federal court, claiming the effort was a thinly veiled attempt to suppress votes in key Democratic districts.
Montana Republicans abandoned the effort the following day. In a letter sent to election officials in the seven counties, Eaton said he was withdrawing the challenges and would be issuing no more.
“My intent was to ensure that voters are properly registered and that Montanans would have the utmost faith in the integrity of our elections process,” Eaton wrote. “Nevertheless, because of the unintended consequences that have been reported, I will not file any other elector challenges.”
The next day, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula denied the Democrats’ request for an injunction but issued a strong criticism of the Republicans’ efforts. In his order, the judge criticized Eaton for his “mischief” in targeting Democratic voters through the challenges.
Montana Democrats dropped the federal lawsuit on Friday, saying they felt they had achieved the goals of the suit and no longer needed to pursue the case.
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