Contested GOP primaries yet again revealed a fault line within Montana’s Republican Party that has defined recent legislative sessions. It’s clear the divide hasn’t dissipated. What’s less clear is how it will play out with a new governor in office, particularly if that governor is a Republican.
In the governor’s race, voters appeared to lean right with Congressman Greg Gianforte’s decisive victory and state Sen. Al Olszewski also nabbing a notable share of votes. The results were more mixed on the legislative level, with a fairly even split between centrist and farther-right candidates locally, although the Conservative Solutions Caucus, a group of moderate Republicans who have played pivotal roles on major legislation in recent sessions, says in an op-ed that a “substantial majority” of its candidates statewide “won their races and won big,” including Kalispell Rep. Frank Garner.
In every session of Gov. Steve Bullock’s two-term tenure, major legislation in Montana has often come down to the Conservative Solutions Caucus voting with Democrats, including Medicaid expansion and renewal. Variations of the caucus have had different names over the years, such as “Responsible Republicans.” Hardline conservatives often give them a more pejorative moniker: RINO, or Republicans In Name Only.
The bipartisan alliance has been built, in part, on mutually practical need. With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, but a Democrat occupying the governor’s office, Dems have needed GOP votes to advance bills, while moderate Republicans have needed Dems to get legislation past Gov. Steve Bullock.
If Democrat Mike Cooney beats Gianforte in the general election, that dynamic remains in place, and very similar patterns of bipartisan coalition-building would likely continue. But if Gianforte wins, do moderate Republicans lose incentive to work with Democrats? Will Republican legislative leaders be able to rubberstamp their entire wish list, or will moderates continue battling on certain issues? Or what happens if moderate Republicans overtake the party’s leadership positions?
The recent Conservative Solutions Caucus op-ed offers an answer: its members intend to hold their ground. They condemned what they see as a belief among “far-right extremists” that legislators “should follow the orders of party bosses even if those orders are contrary to the best interests of the people of Montana.”
“We will not be intimidated and we will not allow an extreme minority in the Republican Party to put their desires ahead of the needs of the people of Montana,” the group wrote, later adding: “We cannot let our Legislature become a highly polarized, ineffective institution like the U.S. Congress.”
On the same day the caucus emailed out its op-ed, Montana Republican Party Chairman Don Kaltschmidt released his own opinion piece calling for party unity, asking the GOP to “come together and ensure our winning message is delivered,” which formed a jarring juxtaposition of pronouncements from the same party.
“Whether moderate, conservative, or libertarian, each of us prizes the Republican values that go hand-in-hand with our Montana way of life,” Kaltschmidt wrote. “We represent Montana, and we’re all on the same team.”
Perhaps the GOP will ultimately find a way to work through its differences. One other wrinkle in this whole equation is the possibility of Democrats taking control of the state Senate or House in the general election.
But despite the lingering questions, one certainty remains: yet again, no matter who’s in the governor’s mansion, moderate Republicans will have highly influential votes on key bills. In their own words, they remain “a power player in the Montana Legislature.”