In the Flathead Valley and across the state, competing factions within the Republican Party squared off in a primary battle that many political observers believed would decide the makeup of the 2015 Legislature.
Candidates across the state vied for 100 open seats in the Montana House and 25 seats in the state Senate in the June 3 primary, setting the course for the Nov. 4 general election.
Of the two-dozen or so state House and Senate primary races considered front lines in the war for the Republican Party, voters mostly re-elected incumbents, regardless of which sect of the polarized GOP they subscribed – members of the more centrist “solutions-seeking” faction or the more conservative set.
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; shoring up public pensions and state infrastructure; 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.
While Tutvedt agreed that neither side could claim a clear mandate because the spoils of the primary election mostly fell to incumbent legislators, he pointed to a slate of races into which his “business Republicans” poured their efforts.
“This is the first time ever that the business Republicans were able to hold their own. I think we did well and showed that if we have anywhere near the same amount of resources we can win the fray, we showed that our message is powerful,” Tutvedt, who represents Senate District 3, said. “So while we didn’t win as many races as we wanted, to I think we came out on the good side.”
On the Senate floor last session, Republicans enjoyed a 29-21 majority, but a quorum of Republicans led by Tutvedt; Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo; Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad; and Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, repeatedly spurned the core of the Senate Republican leadership team – Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman; Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings; Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City; and Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge.
Tutvedt said Jones’ primary win stands out as a watermark of his faction prevailing.
Last week, Jones easily captured the Republican nomination in Senate District 9, where challenger Joseph Large, a hardline conservative, received just 28 percent of the vote.
A farmer-rancher and businessman, Jones sponsored the landmark school-funding bill last session, which increased state funding for schools and promised to reduce local property taxes.
Both Jones and Tutvedt, a farmer, emerged as leaders of the defecting Republicans, making them targets of the more conservative wing, which supported Large.
“We went and stood up for our guys, and we had a number of people win in big races,” Tutvedt said. “Llew Jones won big.”
In 2012, Tutvedt pointed out that Montana’s American Tradition Partnership, which supported more conservative candidates, declared a “sweep” in the primary elections, claiming victory in 12 of 14 targeted districts.
The Washington D.C.-based ATP has made lots of headlines in Montana over its efforts to fight the state’s campaign finance laws, and Tutvedt said this round of primary elections undermined their efforts to monopolize the party.
In the Flathead, former Kalispell mayor Tammi Fisher was the more moderate candidate, especially on health care and approval of the Flathead water compact, and lost the race for the open Senate District 4 seat, which encompasses much of Kalispell’s city center.
Her opponent, House Speaker Rep. Mark Blasdel, of Somers, is considered more conservative and prevailed in the primary by wide margin. But while the race stood out among contested Republican primaries between competing factions within the party, Blasdel said he isn’t interested in creating gridlock and drumming up political rhetoric while compromising the interests of Montanans.
He pointed to last year’s unanimous passage of the budget bill under his House leadership as proof that he works toward solutions and not mounting political points.
In a rare sign of bipartisan support, all 39 Democrats and 61 Republicans that made up the 2013 Montana House of Representatives passed House Bill 2, also known as the budget bill.
“This is exactly the kind of session we’ve been striving for from the beginning: more work and less politics,” Blasdel said at the time. “Neither side wants to waste the people’s time with speeches and bickering. Bipartisan cooperation doesn’t mean agreeing on everything. It means a focus on results, rather than on scoring points. That’s what we’ve done today. More work and less politics.”
In an interview after the June 3 primary, Blasdel touted his experience in the House leadership and his ability to work toward solutions as qualities that appeal to Montana voters.
“My true style of quiet leadership and working to find solutions while also maintaining my principles will continue,” he said. “Obviously, you have to stand on your beliefs and stand on serving the voters so you continue to stand on those principles, but I have also shown that we can find solutions. I have a great working relationship with a lot of the members and I have the true benefit of having worked with so many members of the House that will help me continue to be effective.”
In House District 7 (downtown Kalispell) Frank Garner, former Kalispell chief of police and now chief of security at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, was the moderate Republican who defeated the more conservative Ronalee Skees.
In House District 11 (south of Kalispell) tea partier Mike Hebert lost to the more moderate Al Olszewski, a surgeon who last year testified in support of legislation to expand Medicaid in Montana.
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