HELENA – Republicans emerged Wednesday from a rowdy and crowded primary season that saw GOP voters backing roughly half of the candidates favored by hardline conservative activists.
Several groups hoping to ride a tide of tea party politics have been pushing for candidates who support an even stricter adherence to principles such as smaller government and tax cuts. Results show that GOP voters had chosen, or in a few races that were too close to call, were leaning toward, those candidates in 12 of the 25 such contested primaries.
The Montana Republican Party said the policy differences between the GOP candidates were not large. Party Chairman Will Deschamps said he thinks all of the candidates believe in core party principles like family values and tax cuts.
The goal is to now focus all the Republicans and newcomers through tea party rallies on beating Democrats in November — despite some nasty mailers in the GOP primaries.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see. I would like to think in a perfect world, that once a primary is over and a person is chosen by their party, that the entire party will coalesce behind them,” Deschamps said.
One high-profile race saw sitting state Sen. John Esp inexplicably attacked as a liberal who wants to bail out abortion clinics with state money — despite years of championing conservative causes in the Legislature. He was topping Rep. Joel Boniek by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin in Livingston area House District 61 — but not without a cost.
Esp called groups behind the attacks, like the Denver-based Western Tradition Partnership with ties to several former Republican officials in the state, “a bunch of unprincipled cowards.”
Dan Fuchs, a former Montana legislator now with the conservative group, said Republicans coming out of tough primary battles need a thick skin. He said he believes conservatives will rally around Republicans aiming to beat Democrats in November.
“I think so, because there is too much at stake,” Fuchs said. “People really feel like we are on the edge of the cliff as a nation. I think everyone will pull together going into November.”
The Montana Democratic Party had some primary battles of its own, such as several that pitted well-known current and former legislators against each other. But the Democrats had nowhere near as many contested races as the GOP, and they certainly didn’t attract attack ads from outside interest groups like in the Republican races.
“Who’s in charge over there?” said Democratic Party Chairman Jim Elliott, a former lawmaker himself. “I have never seen primary challenges like this, ever. It shows me there are deep divisions in the Republican Party, and the infighting is unprecedented.”
Control of the Legislature is a priority for both parties in a year with little at the top of the ticket attracting voters. The House has been closely divided among partisan lines, and contentious, for several years. The GOP currently has a slim hold on the state Senate.
Henry Kriegel, a Bozeman Tea Party director, said more conservatives are getting active. He believes the tea party activists will focus on helping all Republicans, even those some believe are not conservative enough, because splintering support with a third-party movement would only help Democrats.
“Tea party activists are going to stay engaged in the game through the general election and beyond,” he promised.
Sen. Jeff Essman, running the GOP’s legislative campaign committee, said every Republican coming out of the primary battles opposes the agenda of President Barack Obama as the GOP hopes to slow it down in the state Legislature. He said the Republicans will rally around that goal.
“There are small degrees of difference in our party, as opposed to the gulf between commonsense Montana values and what’s going on in Washington D.C.,” he said.
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