Montana Republicans Tussle Over Party Line

The number of Republican-versus-Republican legislative contests continues to swell

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press
Montana State Capitol building. Beacon file photo

HELENA – Clashes between Republican hardliners and party moderates could roil Montana’s June primary, as the number of Republican-versus-Republican legislative contests continues to swell.

The intraparty skirmishing could have profound impacts on how the legislature tackles some of the biggest issues facing the state.

“One important question will be the composition of the Republican caucus within the legislature next session,” said Jeremy Johnson, a professor of political science at Carroll College. “The moderate Republicans held the balance of the power in the Legislature last session.”

Last year, moderate Republicans splintered with their party to collaborate with Democrats on key issues, including expanding Medicaid and ratifying a contentiously debated water compact with Native American tribes. Gov. Steve Bullock and Democrats championed both measures, and advanced only because of support from Republican moderates who bucked their party’s ideological purists.

As of Monday, 52 of 125 legislative seats up for election will be contested — with nearly half pitting a Republican against another Republican. Meanwhile, filings with the Secretary of State’s Office show only eight primary matchups between Democrats.

In the House, where all 100 seats are up for election, at least 41 seats are being contested — 15 of those races featuring Republican-versus-Republican contests. Only 25 Senate seats are up during this election cycle, with at least 11 featuring contested races — six of them featuring two GOP contenders.

The filing deadline is March 14.

While the June primary is expected to be mostly uneventful for most statewide races, including the governor’s race, most of the primary fireworks will be generated by dueling Republicans.

One of the races being closely watched is in Senate District 10 in the Great Falls area. Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican, is vying against a self-described conservative political newcomer for an open seat.

“There’s been a power struggle within the Republican Party,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I think it’s good to have a diversity of thought within your party. It forces you to think about why you’re for something, or why you’re against it.”

Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick faulted Republican leadership for its rigid approach to lawmaking. “They don’t know how to build coalitions, to build majorities,” he said.

His opponent, J.C. Kantorowicz, said he was drawn into the race because of Fitzgerald’s alliances with Democrats.

“Many of us feel that Steve Fitzpatrick is an undocumented Democrat. It means he calls himself a Republican. But in reality, his philosophy is more closely aligned to the Democratic Party.”

Fitzpatrick voted in favor of the Medicaid expansion and authorizing the water compact.

State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls, characterized her party’s schism as “rugged individualism in action.”

She urged voters to delve deeper into where candidates stand on issues.

“When a voter votes Republican, they expect that representative to adhere to Republican values and principles, for the most part,” she said. “We see problems when we get people in there who don’t care about those values and they just go off and do their own thing.”