It’s known as the Republican Party’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans.”
Although popularized by President Ronald Reagan, its author was Gaylord Parkinson, a San Diego physician who chaired a divided California Republican Party in the mid-1960s. Reagan embraced it and emerged from a potentially divisive GOP primary race for governor in 1966 and won the general election.
Today, the 11th Commandment often is more honored in the breach than in the observance, at least nationally.
Look at Mitt Romney, who came away badly battered and bruised by his Republican opponents during the 2012 presidential primaries.
Now in Montana, three former state Republican chairmen, in a highly unusual move, have lined up to publicly oppose Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke in the five-way primary.
Former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill of Helena, former state Sen. Ken Miller of Laurel and state Sen. John Brenden of Scobey have accused Zinke of trying to rebrand himself as a staunch Republican conservative for the congressional race.
His refurbished image, they argue, is at odds with Zinke’s moderate voting record as a state senator from Whitefish in 2009 and 2011 on issues such as abortion, education, environment and labor.
Hill has used postings on his Facebook page to contrast Zinke’s campaign stands with his legislative voting record. Miller has done the same through his email list.
Hill supports state Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings in the primary. Miller said he could go for Arntzen, state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive or former Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings.
It’s hard to know how these critiques are affecting the primary. Zinke has been the leading fundraiser, by far, and was widely seen as one of the frontrunners.
Asked his reaction to the criticisms, Zinke said he continues to abide by the 11th Commandment.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people have forgotten Reagan,” he told me. “I think it’s reflective of a party in chaos; but I think with leadership, you can change the party and go for the party of no to the party of go.”
Longtime political observers, the state Republican chairman and even Hill and Miller can’t recall when a top Republican candidate here last underwent such a public critique.
“I’m not happy about it,” said state Republican Chairman Will Deschamps of Missoula. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it. People that make consistent drumbeats on someone in the party, they will be held accountable by somebody — but not the state party, not the state chair, not the executive director.”
Deschamps said he would rather see supporters of candidates talk about the good attributes their candidates than attack others.
Hill defended his actions.
“Ryan is running as a conservative,” Hill said. “If Montana Republicans decide to nominate a moderate, they are entitled to do that, but they shouldn’t think they are voting for a conservative. There is a pretty deep concern among mainstream Republicans that Ryan is just not in the mainstream of the Republican Party.”
Here’s Miller’s take: “It’s unprecedented that I’m aware of us. At the same time, it’s not just Ken Miller, John Brenden and Rick Hill. I’ve received many emails from voters thanking us. It really is what a primary is for — to vet a candidate. The goal is always to get the best candidate.”
Although Zinke cites the 11th Commandment, Miller said the Special Operations for America super PAC, which Zinke founded and critics say is still coordinates with, have run negative ads against Rosendale. Zinke has denied that he’s coordinated with the PAC.
What impact will all this have?
David Parker, political science professor at Montana State University, said the attacks levied against Zinke would be more unusual if they were coming from current party officers. Candidates’ use of surrogates to attack rivals is commonplace and protect the candidate who benefits, he said.
“Zinke is the candidate the other candidates are most worried about winning,” Parker said. “They believe that, in order to win, they have to knock him down a peg.”
If Zinke captures the primary, these internal attacks shouldn’t hurt him, Parker said.
“Recent research suggests that competitive and tough primaries do not hurt candidates in the general election,” Parker said. “Indeed, they help make the candidates better prepared for the rigors of the fall campaign. It would only drag Zinke down — and only if — the party refused to come together for the fall campaign. And that, I suspect, will not happen.”
Craig Wilson, political science professor at MSU Billings, said he thought Zinke was probably the primary favorite, prior to these attacks.
“But it remains to be seen to what extent they will be able to hurt him badly enough to sneak (their candidates) in,” Wilson said.
Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at 800-525-4920 or 406-447-4066. His email address is email@example.com.