HELENA — Montana Democrats accused conservatives of deceitfully filing to run for the party’s nomination in a number of legislative primaries, while several Republican incumbents will try to fend off their own primary challengers in a continuing power struggle between GOP factions.
There will be dozens of contested legislative primaries in Montana’s June 3 elections, data from the Montana Secretary of State’s office shows. Most are for open seats in the Montana House or Senate, or in races to challenge an incumbent from another party in the general election.
But in at least eight of the 25 Democratic House and Senate primaries involving multiple candidates, party leaders say some of those running are conservatives attempting to trip up the party’s candidates.
“It appears there’s an organized effort to file tea party Republicans as Democrats,” Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee director Lauren Caldwell told the Great Falls Tribune. “It is sort of dirty politics at its worst. The goal appears to be to deceive voters.”
In one of those races, former Sanders County Republican Central Committee vice chairman Gerald Joseph Cuvillier filed to run against Democrat Weylin Achatz for the Democratic nomination to represent House District 13.
Cuvillier told the Tribune he left the Republican Party because the party wasn’t conservative enough, and he thinks the Democratic Party is too liberal, as well.
“I’m running as a conservative Democrat,” Cuvillier said. “I believe we need to get back to our constitutional principles.”
Fellow Sanders County conservative Terry Caldwell also called himself a “conservative Democrat” in running against Democrat Lloyd Wilkins for the House District 14 nomination.
“I don’t know what to say about it other than there is a lot of good people out there that are conservative Democrats that need representing, so I’d like to do my best to represent them,” Caldwell said.
Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps, of Missoula, said the party had nothing to do with encouraging any candidate to run as a Democrat.
“The two places where this is happening, Sanders County and Gallatin County, have very, very conservative people with very, very conservative ideas,” Deschamps said. “I don’t know what’s creating it, and I don’t know what they desire to accomplish. I think it’s a fool’s errand. I would rather people run on the philosophy of the Republican Party as Republicans.”
There are 40 contested GOP legislative primaries, 16 of which involve a Republican trying to oust an incumbent in the same party.
A split between conservative and moderate factions of the GOP emerged during the 2013 legislative session, and at least eight Republican incumbents from the moderate camp face conservative challengers.
A half-dozen GOP primaries have moderates taking on more conservative incumbents.
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, a leader of the faction calling itself the “responsible” or “business” Republicans, told Lee Newspapers of Montana that the group recruited numerous candidates to challenge ideological conservatives.
“We worked our tail off to give the voters a choice, so there is a reasonable candidate that believes there is a place for government — a small, but well-functioning government — instead of the chaos and anarchy these (other) guys want,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman — a leader of the more conservative faction — said the candidates he supports won’t team up with minority Democrats, as some did at the 2013 Legislature, to approve more government spending.
“People are going to be able to decide if they want a two-party system or a modified one-party system, which is what we had last session, with the crossover (Republicans),” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. It’s going to strengthen the party.”
Wittich himself faced primary opposition in the two Bozeman-area Senate seats where he could have run after legislative redistricting, and chose instead to run for the House in District 68 in Belgrade, where he has no primary opponent.
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