So Many Candidates, So Little Time

Breaking down the war within the Republican Party

By Dave Skinner

COVID-19 isn’t messing up just our health, or economy. It’s messing with our elections, too. To start with, the polls won’t open June 2. Instead, ballots will be mailed out May 8 to Flathead County’s 69,212 registered voters.

In primaries with a choice, I much prefer to be informed well enough to choose the best (or least worst) candidate. But 2020 will be different. There’s no door-knocking, live debates, party gaggles, parades, not even fundraisers. We’re mainly left with counting yard signs and how those signs are grouped together, plus reading the usual lame candidate profiles, which always ask too few of the wrong questions.

Flathead Democrats are lucky – there’s the governor primary between Williams and Cooney, but no internecine legislative battles. Republicans? Oh my – so many names, so little information!

Now, there are two reasons the 2020 Republican primary ballot is jam-packed. Flathead County (and much of Montana) is Republican. In Montana’s 2018 primary, for example, primary votes cast statewide in the two top federal races (U.S. Senate and House) averaged 145,000 for GOP, 113,000 for Dems. About 28% more Republican primary votes were cast, in a year when the “Resistance” was in full scream nationwide.

Seems in Montana, if you seek office, no matter your beliefs, an R next to your name on the general election ballot is helpful.

Second reason is, as my lunch-debate partner and former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown wrote last year, a “War of the Republicans” is underway, between small-government conservatives and a gaggle of bacon-swapping moderates. Formerly calling themselves “Responsible Republicans,” these moderates have now mantled themselves as the “Conservative Solutions Caucus” or CSC for short.

As Secretary Brown explained, with Gov. Steve Bullock (D) holding the veto pen, the GOP cadre controlling 88 of 150 total seats (58%), and 58 in the state House, split into factions of 38 “traditional” Republicans and 20 others who ended up “clearly the more successful of the two factions.” Why? As the Casper Star Tribune summed it up, Bullock and minority Democrats “found a group of moderate Republicans with similar goals on certain bills with whom they could negotiate and vote in a coalition that outnumbered the conservatives.”

What did these moderates give? Some biggies. “Responsible” votes brought Montana an utterly useless “campaign finance reform” lifted chapter and verse out of the left-wing Center for American Progress’s playbook. Then there’s Medicaid expansion, which utterly fails to deal with health-care’s core failure – cost control.

What did the moderates get? Provincial stuff like stripper oil well tax relief and faster truck speed limits. Seriously, these puny “successes” came at the expense of what Republicans like me believe are fundamental principles about what government should, and mostly shouldn’t, do.

So the GOP war is on, obviously. How else to explain six candidates each for U.S. House and Montana secretary of state? Three running hard for governor? A poacher and two unknowns for state auditor? Why so many? And the attorney general race, which has “only” two competitors, has already gotten vicious, with the “moderate” ripping the “conservative’s” lungs out over, ironically enough, abortion. So much for speaking evil about fellow Republicans, right?

What about here in the Flathead? Yep, war. My general impression here is that the GOP incumbents and/or conservatives facing a primary have challengers with ties to the CSC, except for the House race in Whitefish.

So, what kind of Republican best represents you? Well, I would really like the Flathead’s GOP primary election to reflect a well-informed electorate, not wild guessing, so I’m going to suggest two things:

First, hold onto your ballot and mark it later rather than sooner. Please, take your time, then send it in!

Second, and this should be helpful to you, the Conservative Solutions Caucus has a Facebook page — the value coming from the names named, either favorably or unfavorably. Further, there’s a “Montana CSC” Twitter account chronicling the exploits of “radically transparent Conservative Republican Legislators.” Visit both, and I guarantee you’ll be sufficiently informed on which candidates represent your vision of what a Republican should be, not just in the Flathead races, but statewide as well.

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