Republican legislators left the legislative session that ended this week even more divided than when they arrived, with warring factions promising a protracted fight for control of the direction of the Montana GOP. 

Republicans held large majorities in both chambers — but Senate Republican leadership routinely lost on big votes, even on procedural motions where a caucus usually sticks together. The leaders had few successes to point to, outside their ability to block Medicaid expansion.

The unusual family squabble dominated many of the Legislature’s biggest debates on school funding and other budget issues. And when lawmakers adjourned Wednesday, the two factions held separate news conferences.

About 20 Republicans who joined Democrats to advance key legislation are billing themselves as the “responsible Republicans” who were willing to solve problems.

But Republican Senate leaders argued that the “splinter group” undermined conservatives who were seeking more tax cuts and less spending.

Both sides expect the battle will continue into internal Republican Party politics, and even into primary elections next year.

Well-known eastern Montana radio personality and rancher Taylor Brown said he realized early on that “extremists” elected to run the Senate were providing no leadership or agenda. He made the decision to join Republicans who are “seeking responsible solutions” because inaction wasn’t an option on lingering problems like pensions and college system accountability.

Brown, like the others, is anticipating anonymous “dark money” attacks against those who bucked the chamber’s conservative leaders.

“I am not worried about the blowback that is going to happen to my political reputation much,” he said. “When the chips are down, just do what you think is right.”

The unexpected battles between the Republican factions might prove to be just skirmishes compared to the upcoming battle for the Montana Republican Party.

The “Responsible Republicans” said they will be mounting their own political fundraising effort and plan to take primary battles to their opponents in the GOP.

Rep. Rob Cook, a Republican businessman from Conrad, said that if the Republican Party keeps moving farther to the right, it will risk continued failures in statewide elections. He said he expects a “very inflamed discussion in the Republican Party” in the coming months.

The leaders of the conservative Republicans, state Sen. Jason Priest and Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, made it clear in pre-session emails that they are backed by plenty of political money, and plan to use it.

Wittich said he thinks the conservatives have the backing of the Republican Party and Montana voters, and the political momentum of those opposed to growth in government.

“I trust Montanans. They are going to see exactly what happened,” Wittich said. “I can’t wait to go home and tell my constituents what I did.”

Even though Republicans have held historically large majorities over the past two sessions, like many times in the past the conservatives walked away grumbling that they lost on budget and tax policies. But Wittich said the conservatives play a crucial role with their “no” votes.

“There has always been a group like us, sometimes in leadership and sometimes not,” he said. “If Democrats had been in charge of the checkbook forever, where would we be? That is not a world that looks very attractive to me.”

One longtime conservative Republican lawmaker, who returned to the Legislature this session after a long layoff due to term limits, said the GOP division handed big wins to Gov. Steve Bullock.

“We need to find the common denominator in the Republican caucus that we can achieve good solid wins with and concentrate on those things,” said Sen. Fred Thomas, who sided with Wittich throughout the floor disputes. “There is still a good deal of common things we agree on, and we need to focus on those things.”

(7) comments


It's always good to read what the Democrats think of the Republicans. Thanks for printing this opinion column. Next time, please note the Democrat's name who wrote it.


Finally....the IR admits what has been blatantly obvious for months. The coverage of this session has been pathetic.


So our GOP leadership are tallying "wins" and "loses". That's what's important huh? If "wins" are your priority, then sadly, you GOP "leaders" suffer from acute cranial-rectal inversion. I predict your losing streak will continue as long as you follow your radical, extreme right-wing agenda. A "win" for the responsible Republicans and Governor Bullock is a win for all Montanans. Oh...Senator Wittich, your constituents are already aware of what you did this session and it was shameful!


So funny (and absolutely telling) that the "responsible" republicans trying to accomplish reasonable legislation for ALL of Montana are castigated and in the absolute minority in this party that wants to run a fringe, morality agenda for a tiny portion of Montana.

It's funny - but it would be a lot funnier and less sad if this story was about a Dakota or Idaho and I wasn't laughing at how messed up my home state legislature and governance is/are.


As opposed to the robotic Democrats who are always in lock step with each other.


Say what? In my experience it's the GOP that tends to walk lockstep. And unfortunately, their party has been hijacked by extremists who are going to render the GOP unelectable within a decade. All the GOP has managed to do nationally is obstruct Obama at every turn, but I don't see any alternative ideas coming from their camp.


All the GOP has to do is stop and stamp the dust off their feet and wipe the drool from their chin and think what is good for the PEOPLE. Why not promote the greatness of the Country and focus on oportunity for all people to be what they can be. Compare the life styles of those who have taken advantage of opportunities and have invested effort in their well being. Demonstrate the freedoms America has to offer and compare life styles of those who are the "slaves" of big government. Point out the limitations of self determination when a person gives up thier right and becomes a ward or slave to government handouts. Show how dependency on government for subsitance is inhibiting a persons ability to break away from the grips of poverty. Promote the mind set that You can be what you want to be all you have to do is "you do it". Also point out that being dependent on government is not a good thing for people. Promote pride in self and respect for rewards people recieve for personal efforts of their own making. Instead of believing in the "victim mentality" that destroys human dignity, pride and confidence in self.

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