Battle for the GOP: Hard-line conservatives battle 'solution-oriented' pragmatists in primaries

2014-05-25T00:00:00Z 2014-05-29T14:43:19Z Battle for the GOP: Hard-line conservatives battle 'solution-oriented' pragmatists in primariesBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau and TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Editor’s note: This story is the first of a two-part series on contested Republican legislative primaries in Montana, pitting one faction of the party against another.

HAMILTON — Here in one of Montana’s most conservative counties, GOP state Sen. Scott Boulanger is facing a primary election challenge from fellow Republican Pat Connell, who calls himself a “solution-oriented” conservative.

“I don’t vote philosophically; I vote for solutions,” said Connell, a two-term state representative from Hamilton. “I’m running on my voting record, on my effectiveness as a legislator.”

Boulanger, running for election to a Senate seat to which he was appointed in 2013, said the choice couldn’t be clearer for Republican voters in Ravalli County’s Senate District 43: The real conservative, or the one who said he’s conservative but voted with Democrats on key issues during the last Legislature.

“I represent the conservative Republicans,” Boulanger said. “(Connell) represents the 20 percent of the Republicans who are trying to convince everyone that 80 percent of us are wrong.”

Across Montana this spring, electoral battles like the one in District 43 are being waged in district after district, as outspoken conservatives cross swords with their more centrist brethren in Republican legislative primaries.

Republicans, who have controlled the Montana Legislature for most of the past two decades, have always had competing factions within their party.

But the divisions spilled messily into the public eye during the 2013 Legislature, as a group calling itself the “responsible Republicans” teamed up with minority Democrats to pass many of the session’s key bills, which were opposed by many of the more-conservative majority of Republican lawmakers: The state budget, school-funding reform, shoring up public-employee pensions and government infrastructure.

That battle for the soul of the party has extended into the 2014 elections, as candidates from each GOP camp compete against each other in more than two dozen legislative primary elections on June 3.

The intra-party divide is a factor in at least nine state Senate GOP primaries and 15 in the House.

Gazette State Bureau reporters and Gazette reporter Tom Lutey visited five of these Senate districts in recent weeks for a firsthand look at primary contests throughout the state: The Flathead Valley, Ravalli County, a rural district in north-central Montana, an urban district near Helena and one of the state’s largest districts, stretching from Laurel all the way to Miles City, in south-central and southeast Montana.

Each of these races has its own local flavor and issues. But each has common threads as well.

The harder-line conservatives want to return state-budget surpluses to taxpayers, through more and deeper tax cuts. They are critical of government spending increases, particularly those in the 2013 Legislature. They oppose anything that smacks of “Obamacare.” They support school choice, which usually means some form of tax credit to help people send their children to private or charter schools.

The “responsible Republicans” said they while they’re conservative, they look for solutions to problems facing their communities, and don’t rely only on whether it fits into an ideological box. They said government spending can be a good thing for everybody, if spent on the right projects, such as local infrastructure and schools. They’re willing to consider options for Obamacare that could help Montana citizens, yet resist federal expansion of a welfare program.

Here’s a closer look at these key Republican legislative primary races:

Senate District 20: Duane Ankney v. Barry Usher

In this rangy southeast Montana political district, 150 miles long and bookended by coal mines, Republican legislator Duane Ankney is fighting for his political life.

The former Westmoreland Coal crushing superintendent, who’s been a state representative for eight years, is the latest Republican lawmaker in southern Montana to have his conservative bona fides challenged in a primary election.

His opponent is Barry Usher, of Billings, owner of Beartooth Harley Davidson and a reliable supporter of the new conservative movement, in which well-funded outside groups like Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Express work with local conservatives on “informational” campaigns more focused on ideology than candidates.

When those groups have rolled into town, they’ve often used the Usher’s South Frontage Road business as a staging area for rallies.

Ankney, in mailers and political action committee report cards, is being described as gun-hating, abortion-loving, liberal donkey in GOP pachyderm’s clothing — all of which he said is nonsense.

He said his constituents, at least those he represented in his much smaller House district, know better.

But other Republican lawmakers have said the same in recent primaries, only be handed pink slips by voters on the first Tuesday in June.

“I’m not a liberal,” he said. “I’m a responsible conservative. There’s a hell of a difference. Responsible conservative means you make a studied decision on things, whether it’s natural resources, or taxation issues. You weigh the outcome against what you see as political gain. These other guys, they just go, ‘Nooooo!’ I haven’t seen them come up with any solutions.”

Usher said there’s nothing conservative about “responsible conservatives,” as Ankney describes himself.

“There’s a split in our party right now, obviously,” Usher said. “The ‘irresponsible Republicans,’ I call them. They want to compromise with the Democrats. I don’t believe the Democrats are willing to compromise. And if you look at the last session, the irresponsible Republicans were all about capitulation.”

Usher faults Ankney for the passage of a biennial state budget in 2013 that increased spending 14 percent from the previous budget passed in 2011. Ankney was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that crafted the budget.

Ankney also points to the budget, but as proof that he can get things done. The budget initially passed the House unanimously, with both the Legislature’s most conservative members and its Democrats supporting it. Its final version passed with the support of minority and some Republicans, including Ankney.

Usher’s platform is much more conservative on social issues.

In earning the endorsement of the Montana Family Foundation, a group opposed to abortion and gay marriage, he stated he opposes assisted suicide, as well as abortion in all cases. Usher opposes child adoption by gay couples, and gay marriage.

A former Maryland police officer, Usher also wants voters to know he’s bullish on gun rights, more so he said than Ankney, who voted against a bill allowing children younger than 12 hunt game.

Abortion and firearms are two issues important to the district, Usher said.

“Those are probably the biggest hot items,” Usher said. “Land issues are important, too. When it comes to oil and gas, Duane and I are pretty much the same.”

Senate District 4: Mark Blasdel v. Tammy Fisher

For House Speaker Mark Blasdel, the race in Kalispell’s Senate District 4 is something of a reprieve of his first political run in 2007, when he beat an incumbent Republican in the primary, challenging from the right.

This time, however, Blasdel is facing the primary challenge, from a popular former mayor of Kalispell, Tammi Fisher, who said she’s a better fit for the district because she lives in the city and is more dedicated to addressing its needs.

“I work here, I live here and I pay taxes here,” she said. “I uniquely identify with Kalispell. … I’m completely invested in this community.”

This newly drawn district includes the city of Kalispell and semirural areas west of town. It’s an open seat because the incumbent, Republican Sen. Jon Sonju, chose not to run.

Blasdel, 37, has spent four terms representing his current House seat, which includes the southern edge of Kalispell and Somers, where he lives and operates his family’s restaurant and catering business.

He doesn’t live in SD4, but still lives in Flathead County, so he’s eligible to run for any seat entirely within the county.

While he doesn’t live in the district, Blasdel said he’s still part of the Kalispell community.

“I do business here; I’m in Kalispell every day,” he said, knocking on doors in a central Kalispell neighborhood. “I’m involved in business groups. … You have two very heavily recognized candidates here. I think it’s going to come down to our stances on the issues. We’ll see.”

Blasdel is a bedrock conservative who has carried school-choice bills, opposed Medicaid expansion in 2013 and wants to use budget surpluses for more permanent tax cuts.

As a leader last session, he was part of the conservative wing that saw much of its agenda defeated or vetoed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

“We kept being told that we couldn’t afford (more tax cuts), but look at all of the spending that we passed (for public programs),” he said. “At the end of the day, what did everybody in the private sector really get? I think there has to be that balance, with the private sector as well.”

During the Senate campaign, Blasdel also has voiced his opposition to the Flathead tribal water compact and allied himself with those hoping the state can take over management of some federal forest and grazing lands within Montana.

Fisher, 37, an attorney, said a senator for SD4 needs to concentrate on what’s achievable to help Kalispell, rather than focus on conservative causes that probably aren’t going anywhere.

The city has infrastructure needs and could use some state help, she said, including adjustment of state regulations that drive up costs or slow development.

Fisher also faults GOP leadership in 2013 for simply rejecting Medicaid expansion, saying they should have developed on an alternative to route the money through the private sector, to provide health coverage for poor, working Montanans.

Now, Medicaid expansion backers may get a full expansion approved through a ballot measure, she said.

“That’s not the Republican Party I know,” she said of the failure to come up with an alternative. “The Republican Party I know offers solutions.”

Senate District 43: Scott Boulanger v. Pat Connell

Two years ago, state Rep. Pat Connell of Hamilton narrowly turned back a primary-election challenge from outfitter Scott Boulanger, who said Connell had betrayed property owners by supporting a 2011 bill enabling utilities to condemn land to build power lines.

This year, the roles are reversed in this southern Ravalli County Senate district.

Boulanger, appointed last year to fill out a Senate term after the incumbent won a seat on the Public Service Commission, is being challenged by Connell.

Connell, 64, a forester who worked for private timber firms most of his career, said he’s running on his record of getting things done in the Legislature — without a lot of partisan posturing.

Connell has sponsored laws to require the state to use Montana wood products for highway guard rails and signs, to help truckers avoid burdensome weighing requirements and establish a wildfire-fighting fund that will save the state money.

He also was part of the group of Republicans who joined Democrats in 2013 to pass a major school-funding bill, the state budget and small business tax cuts.

“I’ve listened to myself being called a RINO (Republican in name only) and a liberal, and that I might as well be a Democrat, because I crossed the aisle,” he said. “I guess that’s great sound-bite politics, but … does it really matter who you’re working with if you’re getting something done?”

Boulanger, 49, of Darby, who also owns a precious metals store in Missoula, voted against the budget, school-funding and firefighting fund bills last year, although he supported the business tax cut.

As far as Boulanger is concerned, the 2013 Legislature should have passed deeper tax cuts: “If we have a $500 million surplus, that means we’re taxing our citizens too much.”

He also said that any attempt to expand Medicaid, which is part of “Obamacare,” should be resisted, and that the citizens of SD43 want a legislator who will hold fast to conservative principles of smaller government, lower taxes and less spending.

“After talking and knocking on hundreds of doors, one of the No. 1 questions I hear from people is, `Are you a conservative?’” Boulanger said at the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee dinner. “There’s a clear choice in this race.”

The winner of the June 3 Republican primary in this district is the heavy favorite to win in November.

“I don’t even know who the Democrat is in the general election,” Boulanger said.

For the record, it’s Robert Schumacher of Hamilton.

Coming Monday: School funding bill made Republican a target for party's conservative wing

Monday: A look at two more contested Republican Party primaries, in Helena and north-central Montana.

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