HELENA – Several GOP legislative primaries are turning into a battle between ultraconservatives seeking to capitalize on momentum generated by the national tea party movement and their more moderate opponents.
And on both sides of the aisle, term limits have created opportunities for several former and sitting legislators looking to move up this primary election season.
The most interesting ideological battle appears to be taking place on the Republican side, where conservatives and moderates are again battling in about half a dozen races or more around the state.
The clash of ideas is not new to legislative Republicans, who have had more public disputes in recent years over the direction of the caucus. Once again, those interested in a more conservative direction have been forcefully advocating for their own candidates in primary elections.
But this time a new group — billed as Main Street Advocacy — has been running issue advertisements in areas that could help the moderate candidates targeted by the Montana Conservative Alliance.
The Republican Party, which vows to stay neutral in primary races, was forced to step into the fray last week when it said people are mistaking the Main Street Advocacy messages as coming from the GOP itself. The moderate group pulled the ads to avoid controversy.
“Any group has the right to campaign and operate within the parameters of Montana’s campaign laws, whether it’s Main Street Advocacy, Montana Conservative Alliance, or any other,” the party wrote to members. “But any use of the name Montana GOP is inaccurate. Again, the party does not take any side in any Republican legislative primary.”
The conservative group, led by former lawmaker Roger Koopman of Bozeman, said the current political environment favors unyielding conservatives who favor steep reductions in government spending. He said the mood evident at tea party rallies will not be kind to Republicans who have bent on that principle.
“It will be interesting to see what kind of impact the tea party types and others are going to have on these races because big government Republicans are the ones who have supported the growth in big government over the years,” said Koopman. “I think what is going to happen is that the more liberal Republicans are going to feel the wrath more than the liberal Democrats because we feel betrayed.”
State Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, is helping out with the Main Street effort and said he has been beating back false rumors about it, such as that the group is funded by a liberal labor union.
“It’s a Republican organization,” he said.
Brueggeman said Koopman caught many Republicans by surprise when he first started his campaign of endorsements in previous election cycles. The senator, known for a pragmatic approach, wanted to make sure there was help available for lawmakers targeted by Koopman’s operation.
Brueggeman said the Conservative Alliance represents a very narrow, unyielding conservative viewpoint that stands to disenfranchise many in the Republican Party. He said its leaders are unable to govern by working with Democrats in a closely divided Legislature.
“Eventually it is going to be Roger Koopman standing on a hill all by himself,” the state senator said. “The way they are going, they will have a party of exactly one.”
In some cases, the races pit well-known Republicans against each other.
Near Livingston, the House District 61 primary pits incumbent Joel Boniek, among the most conservative in the legislature, against former state Sen. John Esp who left the upper chamber due to term limits. Even though Esp has been in leadership in the Senate, and is generally viewed as conservative himself, he does not have the backing of Koopman’s outfit.
On both sides of the aisle, term limits have created opportunities for several former legislators and for sitting legislators looking to move up — and are also pitting old friends against each other.
Former Republican representatives Mark Noennig and Alan Olson are in a crowded primary with newcomers Wesley Prouse and Kathy Galbreath in the Senate District 23 GOP primary.
On the Democratic side, current Rep. Shannon Augare and former Rep. Joey Jane are competing against one another in a Senate district heavy with Native American voters.
In Missoula, Democratic Rep. Teresa Henry and former lawmaker Tom Facey are battling for a chance to move to the Senate. And in Helena, Rep. Mary Caferro and former lawmaker Dave Gallik — both outspoken — have been fighting hard against one another to move to the Senate in the safe Democratic district.
Some other races are noteworthy for different reasons.
In Dillon, Republican Rep. Jeffrey Wellborn is being challenged by newcomer Ron Lake — who is on Montana’s violent offender list for aggravated assault years ago he blames on a drinking problem he has overcome. Still, Lake has the endorsement of the Montana Conservative Alliance who says Lake has learned his lesson.
The Democrats have some unique battles as well, including a Great Falls race where abortion politics are playing heavily in a Democratic primary. Union man Rod Lukasik — who has lost past races by margins so close they once resulted in a coin toss — has a unique endorsement from abortion foes. His opponent, Lindsay Love, works for Planned Parenthood.
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