In Flathead County and across the state, two competing sects within the Republican Party are bracing for a primary battle that could shape the future of the GOP in Montana.
On one side, a camp of moderate Republicans dubbing themselves “responsible Republicans,” or “business Republicans,” are squaring off in a host of state Senate and House races, in some cases challenging a more inflexible brand of conservative for the party nomination – including some top GOP leaders from the 2013 Legislature.
Members of the “responsible Republicans” say they uphold traditional conservative values, but, unlike the more doctrinaire “extremist” bloc, are willing to work with Democrats across the aisle to craft Montana-made solutions for problems like funding for public schools, health care reform and improvements to public infrastructure. The group has its own political action committee, called Montana Business Advocates for Sensible Elections (MT BASE), and has taken aim at dark money while recruiting viable candidates for contested Republican primaries.
Last session, Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, was among a faction of the party that split with the more conservative leadership to work with minority Democrats and pass key legislation, including an increased state budget and a major bill that increased state support for public schools.
The move rankled conservative Republican lawmakers who say the party has moved too far to the left, abandoning conservative principles in favor of government expansionism.
Tutvedt, a farmer who represents Senate District 3, emerged as a leader of the defecting Republicans, which has drawn the ire of the state’s conservative Republicans. Most recently, he was the target of a complaint to Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices filed by Dave Ponte, a 2012 House candidate who aligns politically with Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who stands at the fore of the conservative side.
The complaint, which the commissioner quickly dismissed as “frivolous,” alleged improper coordination between some legislative candidates and MT BASE.
Tutvedt shrugged off the allegations as trivial, and said the party’s inability to govern even when it holds a hefty majority is grinding good government to a halt. He characterized the opponents as representing an extremist faction that wants to derail government completely and create gridlock in an effort to popularize their belief that government is ineffective.
With the June 3 primary election just around the corner, and because the Republican winners of those elections are strongly favored to prevail in the general election, Tutvedt said that voters’ decisions next month will chart the future of the GOP.
“I think 84 of 100 House seats will be decided on June 3, so the majority of our Legislature will be elected in the primary,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to field strong, responsible Republican candidates in every district.
But civility and the voter have been the biggest casualties of this rift. The voter who wants government to function has had nobody to vote for. The voter has been the loser. If we win the government will function and if they win it there will just be chaos. We will be mired in extremism and gridlock, which is exactly what they have in D.C.”
Recalling last session, Tutvedt touted the “responsible Republicans’” ability to pass major bills that cut business equipment taxes for an estimated 17,000 small businesses, and their passage of a sweeping, controversial school-funding bill that increased state money for public schools while also cutting school property taxes.
“If you look at the heavy lifts from last session, they were all done by responsible Republicans,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard in the districts with contested primaries to recruit responsible candidates. We believe that there is a very high-quality field of responsible Republicans that want policy and solutions and not rhetoric and gridlock.”
Republicans control majorities in Montana’s Legislature and will likely maintain that control this election.
Conservative Republican Verdell Jackson, of Kalispell, has been serving in the Legislature since 1999, with four terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the Senate. Because of term limits, he’s not running again this year, but said in all his years as a lawmaker he’s never seen a party so divided, nor so vulnerable to what he views as a takeover by RINO conservatives (Republicans In Name Only).
“We have a problem in the Senate and the House where the so-called Republicans vote with the Democrats and support (Gov. Steve) Bullock’s priorities,” Jackson said. “These responsible Republicans, and I hate calling them that because they’re irresponsible, they want bigger, more overreaching government.”
“Last year was a tough year,” he added. “I have never seen that kind of a split.”
The inter-party warring has also driven a wedge between congressional candidates, and recently three former Montana Republican Party chairmen went so far as to band together in public opposition to former state Sen. Ryan Zinke’s bid to win the GOP nomination for U.S. House.
State Sen. John Brenden of Scobey, former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill and former gubernatorial candidate Ken Miller released a statement saying the Whitefish Republican’s views are not conservative enough.
Zinke has been repeatedly barbed by staunch conservatives who say he is too liberal on issues like gun control and abortion.
Zinke faces state Sens. Matt Rosendale and Elsie Arntzen, along with former state Sen. Corey Stapleton and Drew Turiano of Helena, in the June 3 primary. The winner goes up against the Democratic nominee, either former Max Baucus aide John Lewis or former state Rep. John Driscoll, in November’s general election.
Hill endorsed Arntzen while Brenden endorsed Rosendale. Miller declined to endorse a candidate and supports any candidate but Zinke.
Locally, some prominent Republicans are casting their vote in support of more conservative candidates.
Characterizing the 2015 Montana Legislature as the most important session since he was elected, Jackson came out publicly in support of a slate of local candidates who are more conservative than their primary opponents, in some cases by wide margins.
In the open Senate District 4 seat that encompasses much of Kalispell’s city center, House Majority Speaker Mark Blasdel, of Somers, is considered more conservative than former Kalispell mayor and candidate Tammi Fisher.
Blasdel, who characterizes his party as having moved too far to the left, says he expects Medicaid expansion, which he opposes, to be a key issue in the race.
Fisher, an attorney who works for Kalispell Regional Health Care, has said Republicans should have supported a limited expansion of Medicaid last year, rather than rejecting it entirely.
In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, the Medicaid stalemate in Montana has prevented thousands of low-income residents from receiving insurance.
In addition to endorsing Blasdel, Jackson voiced his support for Whitefish’s Doug Adams in House District 5, Ronalee Skees in House District 7 and Mike Hebert in House District 11.
But Tutvedt says the conservative GOP bloc that is proliferating in Helena is too entrenched in its unconditional opposition to issues like Obamacare, preventing real reform.
“Just repealing Obamacare isn’t going to get you anywhere, and it’s not going to happen,” Tutvedt said. “We need to come up with a solution, we need to reform health care and give assurance to the working poor.”
Tutvedt pledged his support to Fisher, as well as Frank Garner in House District 7 and Al Olszewski in House District 11.
“Those are candidates who are going to roll up their sleeves and do what makes sense, and the others are just going to throw rocks.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.