Montana Republicans assembled this past weekend to elect party officials, but it was U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, who occupied the most space at Missoula’s Hilton Garden Inn.
Not Don “K” Kaltschmidt, a Whitefish car dealer whom party delegates elected to his third term as state GOP chairman on Saturday. Not Gov. Greg Gianforte, a month and change following a legislative session where the Republican supermajority dominated. Not Stephen Miller, the far-right former adviser to President Donald Trump and architect of that administration’s immigration policy, who gave the weekend’s keynote address. And not even Trump himself, who a half-day before the convention was indicted as part of a federal investigation into his handling of classified documents after he left office — charges serious enough to have lost the 2024 presidential candidate support from some former White House allies.
Tester, of course, did not attend the state GOP’s biennial officers’ convention, where about 200 party delegates and guests feted Montana Republicans’ surging electoral success, fought among themselves, mingled over drinks and hotel food, listened to speeches, and danced to a New Orleans-style jazz band in which St. Regis Rep. Denley Loge played trombone. But with Republicans marshaling their resources to take on the would-be fourth-term senator in 2024 — and, they hope, take control of the closely divided U.S. Senate — Tester’s silhouette cast a long shadow over the proceedings Friday and Saturday.
“This is very, very important. When we win Montana, we win the United States Senate. It’s as simple as that,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines told the crowd Friday evening.
Daines, in addition to serving as Montana’s junior U.S. senator, chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a party organ that works to boost GOP numbers in Congress’ upper chamber. It’s his goal to help steer Republicans to a majority in the Senate, where Democrats (and independents who caucus with them) currently hold 51 of 100 seats. Daines said the path to that majority goes through Ohio (and its incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown), West Virginia (Sen. Joe Manchin) and Montana, where Tester’s seat is the “last prize” in the GOP’s complete takeover of state politics, as Kaltschmidt put it in his acceptance speech. Montana Republicans hold a more than two-thirds supermajority in the state Legislature, occupy all executive offices, and control all but one of Montana’s seats in Washington, D.C.
Tester won his first Senate election in 2006, unseating Republican Conrad Burns, and has won a ticket back to D.C. by prevailing in close races twice since.
Along the way, he’s cultivated a careful reputation as a political moderate — even a conservative — running in a lane independent of whichever Democratic president is at the top of the ticket. He didn’t publicly support gay marriage until 2013, opposed President Joe Biden’s executive order revoking the Keystone XL pipeline’s permit and supported Gov. Greg Gianforte’s decision to end enhanced COVID-19 unemployment benefits.
But Republicans last weekend sought to paint Tester in a different light. Aaron Flint, a Billings-based conservative news radio host who moderated a panel discussion between Gianforte and Daines Friday evening, branded the senator “Flip Flop Flat Top,” a reference to Tester’s haircut and ostensible betrayal of “Montana values” in favor of D.C. Democrats. Flint repeated the phrase five or six times, tapping the grill of his microphone to create a rhythmic chant.
Miller, who addressed the crowd following the panel, described Tester in terms bordering on apocalyptic. Democrats, he said, are “Marxists,” “socialists,” “communists” and “fascists,” and Tester is complicit in their rule. Tester, he noted, supported the Affordable Care Act and other major Obama policies, opposed Trump’s border wall, and so on. In a tightly divided Senate, Miller contended, Tester would side with Democrats on almost every major issue.
“So many decisive issues are going to come down to a single vote,” Miller said. “Do you trust Jon Tester to be the deciding vote on the fate of your children and grandchildren? Has his conduct for the last 18 years earned him the right to decide the fate and future of every Montana child? And the answer is no, hell no, hell no a thousand times.”
Miller told the crowd he’d been invited to the convention by Daines, whose former press secretary Katie Miller, née Waldman, married Stephen Miller in 2020.
Much of Miller’s speech grounded Republican abhorrence of Tester in the GOP’s current embrace of policies regulating transgender health care and expression in Montana and nationwide. The Montana Legislature in 2023 passed a bill banning gender-affirming health care for transgender youth, banning drag performances in many public spaces, and defining “sex” in state law in a manner that critics say disempowers transgender and intersex people. Some Republicans have framed such bills as a bulwark against corruption of young people.
“You think that you are going to be able to keep the transgender agenda away for another five to ten years? It’s coming to Montana, it’s coming fast,” Miller said. “And they’re going to try and drive a wedge between you and your kids and your grandkids. I’m telling you what’s going to happen. You are not safe here. And if you think Jon Tester is going to protect you — he’s not going to protect you, he’s going to crucify you.”
Tester, Miller noted, co-sponsored the Equality Act, a bill to extend discrimination protections to gay and transgender people, and along with other Senate Democrats opposed an effort by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to limit federal pregnancy resources to “biological females.” He called Tester a “Montanan in drag” who’s been deceiving the state for three terms.
“We can talk all we want about taxes, we can talk all we want about the size of the economy, we can talk all we want about dollars and cents. But the fundamental reason you’re living in Montana is the quality of life here. And you’re not going to have any quality of life when this place looks like Portland,” Miller said.
Tester’s camp is well aware that much of the Republican strategy heading into 2024 is to make him out as a flunky for national Democrats.
“This election is hopefully going to be about me. They’re going to try to make it about somebody else that’s not me,” he told POLITICO in February, not long after announcing his intention to run again.
It’s not yet clear who Tester’s Republican opponent will be, but several Republicans — from current Montana congressman Matt Rosendale to Belgrade businessman Tim Sheehy — have been named as possible candidates.
Miller’s speech garnered a mostly positive response from the assembled crowd, though his rhetorical fire seemed to have some in the back rows shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
Kaltschmidt, in an interview the next day, fielded a question about Miller’s inflammatory tone.
“I think he was spot-on in a lot of areas,” Kaltschmidt said. “And remember what perspective he’s coming from, right? He’s not a Montanan, and that kind of thing. However, you know, he made a lot of good points. Unfortunately, Sen. Tester has not represented the values of Montana.”
Aside from the usual fundraising and building of campaign infrastructure, Daines said, the key for Republican victory in Montana next year is unity. The party’s slogan under Kaltschmidt’s tenure has been “Better, together.”
“I’m not as worried about Democrats,” Daines told the crowd Friday. “If we don’t [stay together], the consequences will be severe.”
Unity has been a challenge for Montana Republicans, especially as the party’s dominance has grown. Factional politics are constantly at play in the Legislature, where divisions between comparative moderates, hard-liners and other sub-caucuses regularly flare over issues like Medicaid and constitutional amendments. At the GOP’s 2022 platform convention, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, received jeers from Republicans when he said there’s no reason to be concerned about election security in Montana. A college student delegate was booed after she called for nuance in the party’s position on abortion.
The state party holds a convention every year. In even years, the party amends its platform. In odd years, delegates elect officers.
Last weekend, delegates completed the latter task without open conflict. Kaltschmidt faced a challenger, Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee Chair Darin Gaub — also a staffer for Montana’s Freedom Caucus chapter — but the debate was friendly, as it was for the other contested positions. Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, will continue as vice chair; Ravalli County Central Committee Chair Terry Nelson won the secretary position; former lawmaker and current PSC executive director Brad Tschida was elected treasurer; and Silver Bow County delegate Suzzann Nordwick was elected assistant treasurer.
But some party infighting did occur behind the scenes. Late Friday night, the party credentialing committee — which makes rules determining who is eligible to sit as a delegate at the convention — voted not to seat the four-person delegation from Missoula County, a decision preventing those delegates from voting during the convention that was affirmed by a meeting of the state central committee the following morning. Both the credentialing committee and state central committee meetings were closed to the press and public.
The ostensible cause was a complaint from some Missoula Republicans about the legitimacy of the certification process that sent the delegates to the convention, according to Missoula County Central Committee Chair Vondene Kopetski, one of the four delegates.
Kopetski and other delegates identified Tschida, a Republican hard-liner who spearheaded a 2020 election irregularity claim in Missoula County, as the vote’s main instigator, but said the cause had more to do with an ongoing conflict between Tschida and the Missoula party establishment. The Missoula central committee last year attempted to “lay to rest once and for all” the claims of irregularity by counting ballot affirmation envelopes last year, only for Tschida to level fresh allegations shortly thereafter.
“They have come to our meetings and harassed people and called people’s names and just generally been so disruptive,” Kopetski told Montana Free Press Saturday afternoon. “They’ve been slandering and defaming members of the group, they’re making accusations with no evidence whatsoever, completely untrue accusations with no evidence whatsoever.”
Reached by a reporter Saturday afternoon, Tschida denied playing a significant role in the de-credentialing effort.
Among the delegates who weren’t seated was 90-year-old Thelma Baker, a longtime fixture of Missoula Republican politics.
“There’s no argument that my mom is a Republican,” Baker’s son, Jim Martin, told MTFP. “She’s about as much of a Republican as I’ve ever seen.”
Kaltschmidt said in an interview that the Missoula County delegation wasn’t seated because its credentialing wasn’t correct.
But Kopetski said the explanation lies in party factionalism and radicalism.
“It is a comment, I think, on some of the things that have been going on in the Republican Party,” she said. “We’ve seen this over the last couple of years in particular …There is definitely a faction that is moving very hard to the right. And I think that that’s what’s happening.”
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