HELENA — 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 home and tell my constituents what I did."
Even though Republicans have held historically large majorities over the past two session, 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."