HELENA – A split in the Republican ranks that grew during the legislative session promises to linger as the party gathers this weekend to pick new leaders.
Montana Republicans gather Friday and Saturday in Bozeman to vote for leaders and listen to top elected officials, topped by a Saturday evening speech from U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.
The party enters the convention with two different factions from their legislative caucus — each backing different candidates for party vice-chair.
Rep. Christy Clark, a Choteau rancher, is running for another term and during this past session, often voted for bipartisan legislation that rankled conservative leaders. She is being challenged by state Sen. Jennifer Fielder of Thomson Falls, who reliably voted with Senate leaders frustrated by the dissident Republicans.
A group branding itself the “Responsible Republicans” said its main point is to fight back against the conservative wing’s attempt to control the party.
“I think we’ve definitely reached a crossroads in the Republican Party, where we either choose to go ahead with a commonsense agenda that recognizes the needs and desires of our constituents or we continue to plunge along to make a Beltway ideology fit Montana,” said state Rep. Rob Cook, a Conrad businessman.
Cook said conservative leaders are trying to force out any viewpoint that differs from their ideology. He argues it has hurt Republicans in statewide races because they have been unable to appeal to the middle.
“If the tail is your party, you are forever doomed to be in the minority,” Cook said. “We will not win statewide elections by moving further right.”
But conservative leaders argue that dissident Republican legislators need to realize they are in the minority of the party. They argue that the moderate members aren’t representing conservative voters back home when they work with Democrats on legislation.
“Republicans will have two choices. Do they want somebody who walks the walk and talks the talk of the party platform or do they want somebody who campaigns one way to get elected in their district and then governs another way?” said state Sen. Majority Leader Art Wittich, a Bozeman lawyer. “I think authenticity matters. I think integrity matters. And I think most of the people at the convention will agree with me.”
Wittich said the GOP will win when its message is consistently conservative and provides a clear contrast with Democrats.
“I also think that people that are in the minority of the party have to recognize that and respect the majority of the majority,” Wittich said. “I hope that we can close ranks and advance Republican principles and give people in 2014 a choice between two philosophies.”
Current party chairman Will Deschamps is running for a third two-year term. He has two challengers in a battle more focused on results in recent elections than the fractured GOP caucus.
He said his focus will remain on fundraising and internal programs aimed at helping Republicans win. He said it is good the party is talking publicly about the split in its legislative ranks.
“The fact that we are discussing it is healthy. If it is comes up at the state convention, so be it. There is some health in that,” Deschamps said. “In the long run people understand that we can’t govern in the majority if we remain split.”
His two foes are Gary Carlson of Victor, who went the untraditional route of announcing his candidacy with a television advertisement in March, and Don Hart of Bozeman. Both say the party needs a new direction following election losses in key statewide offices topped by disappointments in the governor and U.S. Senate races last year.
“I want to get all the Republicans working together and turn this state into a red state again,” said Hart, a retired Air Force officer. “We can do better and we must do better. I just think we need better leadership, and it is leadership that is going to make a difference.”
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