Crowded GOP Field Courts Far Right Voting Block

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana Republicans think the time is ripe for them to retake the governor’s mansion they previously held for 16 years before losing in 2004. But here’s the problem: The sheer number of hopefuls is creating a jumbled, messy courtship of the far-right voter bloc critical to winning the GOP nomination.

An abnormally large and possibly still-growing field of nine is engaged in the crowded race to win the conservative heart of the Montana GOP. The candidates are banking that some momentum remains in the wake of the tea party-enthused 2010 elections that saw the Republican ranks in the Legislature swell.

It’s a tide that may have ebbed a bit after some high-profile failures of bills favored earlier this year by tea party-affiliated lawmakers, bills that Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer called “bat-crap crazy” at the time. But all of the candidates recognize that winning the party’s right wing vote still could be the key to their success or failure in 2012.

Each of the nine is making overtures to that bloc — some fully embracing the platform, others hedging in their support of particular issues that arose during the Legislature — which raises the question of how much appeal the ultimate winner will have with the rest of Montana’s voters. The leading GOP candidates expect to face a tough nominee from the Democrats, Attorney General Steve Bullock, in November’s general election.

“If you are nominated from a segment of the Republican Party, you then have two choices: One, you stay with our ideology and probably lose in the general election, or you are going to have to broaden your appeal to win enough votes to win the general election,” Montana State University-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson said.

Two political newcomers are pushing the debate with a hard-edged brand of conservatism. The candidates say just a third of the primary vote could prevail in a nine-man field.

Drew Turiano, an unknown with little campaign cash, is trying get the attention of the far right with such proposals as banning all immigration to the U.S. because it has caused a “noxious multiculturalism” that he says destroys the English language and causes other problems.

The other newcomer, Bob Fanning of Pray, has brought on a running mate who recently bashed Montana Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg as either “ignorant” or “flippant” about his constitutional duties.

It’s a “constitutional conservatism” standard where even Rehberg, the state’s best-known Republican and an ardent conservative himself, apparently falls short.

All of the candidates aim to replace Schweitzer, a brash Democrat leaving due to term limits, who mocked the Republican-controlled legislature this year for spending its time arguing about proposals that included attempting to place state eminent domain authority over federal land. The governor used his various veto powers to reject, or partially reject, 100 GOP-backed proposals

A Republican governor would likely deal differently with a tea party-fueled agenda. In recent interviews with The Associated Press, the nine candidates took different approaches in responding to controversial issues that arose from the newer conservative ranks of the Legislature.

The interviews found that the candidates in each case sometimes supported the far right proposals, with former state Sen. Ken Miller, Fanning and Turiano appearing to most aggressively court the tea party vote with bold policy proclamations.

Former congressman Rick Hill, the apparent front-runner and the leader in the money race, argued that the questions about far right issues were divisive, even though many of them were advocated in the legislature by the conservative House GOP majority.

Hill apparently is looking ahead to a general election battle, saying the large field will sort itself out. Hill finished the last quarter with about $260,000 in the bank — almost ten times as much as the next closest opponent, former legislator Corey Stapleton of Billings.

“It is hard to understand how some of them think they are going to win,” Hill said of his opponents, some of whom have raised very little money. “I think most of them don’t understand the pieces you have to put together to win a statewide campaign.”

But Hill’s standing hasn’t scared off Republicans from continuing to enter the race.

“Rick Hill has been running for two years and he hasn’t put the race away,” said Neil Livingstone, a Washington D.C. security consultant who grew up in Montana. “Because Rick Hill has not put the race away, there are many that feel the race is wide open.”

Livingstone, who has reported that his campaign coffers are nearly empty, was recently in the news for seeking a multimillion dollar consulting deal earlier this year to help Moammar Gadhafi find an exit strategy from Libya. So far, Livingstone’s opponents haven’t said much about that effort.

State Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings recently entered with some high-profile backing and a promise to raise serious money as well.

And candidates with no money, like Chouteau County Commissioner Jim O’Hara, are betting on the confusion caused by a large field.

“The number of candidates is going to make it a very exciting and interesting race,” O’Hara said. “With the vote divided like that, it could go a lot of different ways.”

The candidates are mixed about a legislative proposal from gun rights advocates to allow concealed carry of guns into bars and banks.

Only three — Stapleton, Livingstone and Turiano — offered support for the full legislative proposal. Hill offered partial support, saying it would be OK in bars but perhaps not in banks.

O’Hara was alone in opposition, while others in the race wouldn’t say firmly one way or the other.

State “nullification” of disagreeable federal laws — another high-profile proposal from the conservative Montana House earlier this year — only had strong support from Miller, Fanning, O’Hara and Turiano.

“The court system is the proper place to settle those disputes,” said Essmann. “We live in a civilized society and that is where we should be settling those disputes.”

The field as a whole generally opposes abortion, but wavers when it comes to a ban even in cases of rape or incest.

Jim Lynch, who served in Schweitzer’s cabinet before he resigned this year amid nepotism allegations, and Turiano both opposed abortion even in such cases. Hill and Essmann agreed, although offered an exception if the mother’s life were at risk.

Stapleton said he would grant an exception in cases of rape or incest, while O’Hara said he wouldn’t pursue a ban on abortion at all.

The other three wouldn’t specifically say if a ban should apply to rape and incest. Miller, who did say he opposes abortion even in cases of the mother’s health, argued the fight against abortion gets side-tracked with the argument over limited exceptions.

The candidates generally shied away from directly saying whether they feel global warming is occurring, denounced by some conservative legislators as a fraud. They all did dispute the extent of man’s contribution — if it is taking place.

“Obviously the climate is changing,” Hill said. “The real question is: what are the elements of the cause?”