HELENA — In legislative primary elections Tuesday, the battle between conservative and moderate wings of the Montana Republican Party pretty much ended in a draw — although, in most cases, incumbents survived.
“To me, it looks like moderates failed in their attempts to remove conservative incumbents, and conservatives failed in their attempt to remove moderate incumbents,” said Senate President Jeff Essmann, a Billings Republican and leader of the conservatives.
Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, a leader of the more centrist faction that calls itself “responsible Republicans” or “responsible conservatives,” said it won more races than it lost Tuesday, but that the makeup of the GOP caucus at the next Legislature probably won’t be much different than it is now.
Cook said Republicans should start forming plans on how to win in November and govern at the 2015 Legislature, “rather than a battle plan for one another.”
Tuesday’s primary contests were an extension of a Republican Party split at the 2013 Legislature, where members of the more moderate wing joined minority Democrats to pass the state budget, a major school-funding bill and other key legislation signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Both factions of the GOP recruited their own candidates and formed their own political action committees, in an attempt to defeat each other in Tuesday’s primary elections. Candidates allied with each faction squared off in more than two dozen legislative primaries.
Only two incumbent Republican legislators lost primary races Tuesday for their current seat: Sen. Scott Boulanger of Darby, an outspoken conservative who was defeated in a close race by Republican Rep. Pat Connell of Hamilton in Senate District 43, and Rep. Roger Hagan of Great Falls, who lost to a more conservative challenger, Randy Pinocci of Sun River, in House District 19.
Two other Republican incumbents – Rep. Ted Washburn of Bozeman and Rep. Joanne Blyton of Joliet – lost their bids for a Senate seat, each of them losing to another Republican House member in Tuesday’s primary.
But most Republican incumbents won their primaries Tuesday, regardless of which faction they represented.
State Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad and state Reps. Christy Clark of Choteau, Roy Hollandsworth of Brady, Tom Berry of Roundup, Ray Shaw of Sheridan, Jeff Welborn of Dillon, Dan Salomon of Ronan and Cook defeated primary challengers from the right.
Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip also defeated a conservative challenger in his primary race for an open Senate seat in south-central Montana.
Reps. Sarah Laszloffy of Laurel defeated a more moderate challenger, and Reps. Kris Hansen of Havre, Mark Blasdel of Somers and Gordon Vance of Bozeman won primary races for open Senate seats, defeating candidates supported by the party’s moderate wing.
Essmann also defeated a moderate challenger in his race for an open House seat.
Republicans hold majorities in the current Legislature and are favored to maintain those majorities at the 2015 Legislature. Both Essmann and Cook said it’s too early to say how the moderate-conservative split may influence the 2015 Legislature.
Cook noted that members of the “responsible Republican” group won in many rural districts, where voter turnout was bigger, and the more conservative faction had better success in urban districts where turnout was lower on Tuesday.
“The rural populations accepted (our) message; urban populations didn’t listen and didn’t vote,” he said.
Essmann, however, disagreed, saying many conservative candidates won in rural areas. He also said it appears that many Democrats crossed over and voted in the Republican primary in Ravalli County’s SD43, helping Connell to a narrow victory over Boulanger.
More than 4,700 people voted in the GOP primary in that district, while only 681 people voted in the Democratic primary.