Republican Leaders Want Primaries Closed to Remove Moderates

Party leaders claim certain, nonconformist Republicans thwarted the party's agenda at the 2015 Legislature

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — Leading Republican lawmakers say in court documents that a lawsuit seeking to close Montana’s primary elections intends to keep moderates out of the Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Matthew Rosendale and House Majority Leader Keith Regier said in depositions filed last week that certain, nonconformist Republicans thwarted the party’s agenda at the 2015 Legislature.

The leaders had lengthy complaints about the session that saw the passage of multiple initiatives they call “of particular importance to Democrats.” Rosendale named seven senators and Regier named 11 representatives they say can be held personally responsible for undermining the Republican majority in each chamber.

Rosendale said such a “distressingly low amount of discipline” among Republicans will only get worse if primaries remain open.

“These actions are demoralizing” to Republicans who embrace the party platform, Rosendale said.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, responded, “Why does Matt Rosendale or Keith Regier have the right to say what the Republican message is?”

The statements from Rosendale, Regier and five other people were added to a lawsuit filed in federal court last September. The suit, signed by the Republican State Central Committee, asks U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris to strike down a state law allowing voters to participate in any party primary, regardless of party affiliation.

The 18 lawmakers were targeted by leadership for voting with Democrats on new laws that will add thousands more people to government-subsidized health care, settle water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation and require more financial disclosures in elections.

“The urge to have transparency in politics is a Democratic bill? Really?” Jones said of the Republican leadership’s stance. “We should quit allowing them the right to define these as Democratic bills.”

Jones and other so-called dissenters contacted Friday said they voted their conscience and with respect to their constituents’ wishes.

Regier said their dissidence muddled the message that leaders desired to send to voters on issues considered important to the party. Rosendale said that agenda was set using a questionnaire distributed among Republican lawmakers before the 2015 session.

Sen. Ed Buttrey, a Great Falls Republican who sponsored this year’s winning plan to expand Medicaid, recalled the survey consisting of questions like “Do you support Obamacare?” that he said couldn’t result in any real answers.

“They took a few questions, they took some yes-or-no answers and they decided what that means for all Republicans in Montana,” Buttrey said. “Thank God there were brave enough souls who said ‘I said I didn’t like the federal program, I didn’t say I didn’t want to come up with a solution.’ ”

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said the leadership’s statements exemplify fractures in the Montana Republican Party.

“I think in reality it’s just grades of conservatives,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think in the world I would be labeled a conservative, but in that Legislature, where we have so many extremists I would be labeled a different man.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.