Roosevelt County Attorney and former House Speaker Austin Knudsen stumps at the 2019 Montana GOP Convention. Credit: Jonathan McNiven / Yellowstone County News

HELENA — Shortly before U.S. Sen. Steve Daines was scheduled to speak at the state Republican Officers’ Convention in Helena Friday night, a free round of champagne was delivered to convention-goers gathered in a hotel banquet room.

State Rep. Forrest Mandeville of Columbus announced that the bubbly was courtesy of an anonymous donor, who had asked that a toast be read. Mandeville, raising his glass of champagne, recited: “Here’s to Republican friends working together to win for Montana in 2020.”

Given the well-publicized dissension within state Republican ranks in recent years, the toast sounded like a combination of fond hope and desperate plea.

Still, given the setting, and the convention’s focus on the big statewide races coming up in 2020, it wasn’t too difficult for Montana Republicans to sound, and to actually seem, firmly united. On the podium and in small-group discussions all over the convention, the No. 1 topic was winning the governorship, which has been in Democratic hands since Brian Schweitzer inaugurated his first term in 2005.

“If we don’t come together and win the governor’s race, well, we’ve seen what’s happened over the past 16 years,” said Terry Nelson, who lost his weekend bid for the GOP party chairmanship to Don Kaltschmidt.

Terry Nelson, one of two announced candidates for GOP chairmanship. Photo by Ed Kemmick/Montana Free Press

Another big 2020 race — President Donald Trump vs. a bewilderingly large field of Democratic candidates — also contributed to the weekend’s feeling of unity. Speakers at the officers’ convention seemed bent on outdoing one another in heaping praise on the president and applauding his efforts to cut taxes, slash regulations, and secure the country’s southern border.

At the Friday night banquet, mashed potatoes and ribeye steaks were on the menu, but the real red meat was served up by Daines, who warned that the election of 2020 will present a stark choice between “freedom vs. socialism.” And the Senate, he said, is a “firewall of freedom,” the last barrier protecting the country from socialism.

Outgoing party Chair Debra Lamm, speaking before Daines, said, “We’re no longer on a slow march to socialism. It’s slapping us in the face.”

But even in confronting such threats, and despite all the talk of unity, there were lingering signs of party factionalism and fresh rounds of intra-party sniping.

RELATED: On the final day of GOP convention, Stapleton changes lanes, and Republican candidates for governor make their case

Rep. Greg Gianforte, elected only last year to his first full term in the U.S. House, has already come in for some harsh criticism from Republican colleagues about his decision to enter the governor’s race. And echoes of the bitter infighting between conservative and moderate wings of the GOP during the 2019 legislative session could be heard throughout the weekend.

Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, a leader of the self-styled Solutions Caucus of moderate Republicans and a frequent target of GOP ire, said he continues to view Montana as a purple state, where the mindset of voters is generally “steady as she goes.” Some Republicans want to emphasize the importance of ideological purity and voting the party line, Jones continued, but “Montanans seem to support those who find solutions. Not just talk about solutions, but find them.”

Congressman Greg Gianforte announces his bid for Montana governor on June 14, 2019 at the Montana Republican Party convention. Photo by Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record.

Jones was also outspoken about Gianforte’s shift from his House seat to the governor’s race, saying he told anyone who would listen over the weekend that he doesn’t like what he calls “the Republican shuffle.” The shuffle happens when incumbents who are not prevented by term limits from seeking re-election turn their sights to a new office, causing other candidates to change their plans in response.

That shuffle played out over the weekend when the formal kickoff of Gianforte’s candidacy for governor prompted Secretary of State Corey Stapleton to announce, at a Saturday morning breakfast forum for gubernatorial candidates, that he had decided to run instead for Gianforte’s now-open House seat.

RELATED: At GOP convention in Helena, Gianforte goes “all in” for governor

That leaves Gianforte in the primary race for governor against two announced GOP candidates: Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell. Setting the stage for further shuffling, Olszewski has acknowledged that Gianforte told him he is on a list of potential running mates. Olszewski said he is open to all possibilities, but that for now he is in the governor’s race to win.

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It’s useful to keep in mind that the officers’ convention is a gathering of the faithful: party leaders, eager up-and-comers, gray eminences who haven’t held office in years but still command attention and respect, and deeply wonkish types who have been involved in politics since junior high student council.

For some politics is a blood sport, for some an inherited passion, and for some a hobby, like stamp collecting, but with much higher stakes and an elevated sense of purpose. These are people who gather in windowless rooms to immerse themselves in policy and strategy on a beautiful 80-degree day, a week before the first official day of summer, the longest day of the year in a state where summer is maddeningly short.

For those already running in the 2020 election, it was a weekend of intense schmoozing, of buttonholing (and lapeling and collaring) convention-goers all day every day. For others, it was a chance to offer thanks, to make connections, to get their names in front of people who matter.

Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion, a candidate for attorney general, talks to Senate President Scott Sales, who is running for Secretary of State, at the 2019 Montana Republican Party officers’ convention in Helena. Photo by Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record. Credit: Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record

Bowen Greenwood walked from table to table at the Friday banquet, thanking people who voted for him — “even though you might not have realized it,” as he told one table — in his successful race for clerk of the Montana Supreme Court last year, where he replaced a Democrat who, prior to retiring, had held the position for three decades.

Hollis Poe, a member of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee and a candidate for House District 85, was working the committee’s raffle table, where the big prize was a Smith & Wesson M&P10, a modified version of the AR-10 rifle. Poe spoke enthusiastically of the Ravalli County group, the only county committee with such a presence at the convention, he said.

Like so many other convention-goers, Poe drove home the need for unity. In the aftermath of the recent legislative session, he said, party members have engaged in the usual rounds of “over self-criticizing,” but the feuding has pretty much played itself out. Now it’s time to “all come back to the family” and concentrate on beating the Democrats in 2020, he said.

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Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell, a never-shy conservative and one of the harshest critics of the Solutions Caucus, said one strength of the Republican Party is that members can have passionate disputes and still work together on important issues.

“Look at grade school,” he said. “Half my friends were guys I got in fights with.”

And while acknowledging that those disputes are far from resolved, Skees said, “The struggle is in the Legislature, not in the committee process.” On weekends like this one, he said, “There’s no reason to pick scabs, so to speak. … At the end of the day, what we have to have is the governorship.”

In Skees’ view, the Republicans’ legislative split is not about conservatives vs. moderates, it’s about power. Some members of the Solutions Caucus, having failed to gain positions of leadership in the party, exercised a different kind of power by forging compromises with Democratic legislators and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, Skees said.

Hollis Poe, a member of the Ravalli County GOP Central Committee and a state House candidate, works the committee’s rifle raffle table at the state GOP Officers Convention. Photo by Ed Kemmick/Montana Free Press.

That’s why winning the governor’s race is so critical, Skees said: With a Republican governor, there will be no need to push compromises with the left, and the conservatives will be back in the saddle.

Skees also said he thinks media coverage focused on dissension in the Republican Party is unfair, considering that the “huge schism” in the Democratic Party, in Montana and nationwide, is relatively ignored.

During a legislative update in a Saturday morning session, House Majority Leader Brad Tschida of Missoula echoed some of those same themes. He said it will be hard for the Montana GOP to move forward without addressing what he called its “identity crisis.”

“Who are we as Republicans?” he asked. “What defines us as being different from Democrats?”

RELATED: Daines warns of socialism and stumps for Trump at GOP Convention

He said party members should hold elected officials to a standard, and that standard ought to be the 10-point platform adopted by Montana Republicans last summer. If an elected official can’t endorse each of those 10 plainly stated principles, he said, that person should probably leave the party.

Don Kaltschmidt, a Whitefish car dealer known by the more accessible handle of Don K, who was elected the new GOP state chairman over the weekend, said he’s been a “business Republican” all his life, and bringing the party together is the top item on his to-do list.

“We definitely have some issues,” he said, referring to the split between party conservatives and moderates, “but I’m glad that we have passionate people.”

Don Klatschmidt, aka “Don K,” the other candidate for state GOP chair. Photo by Ed Kemmick/Montana Free Press.

Kaltschmidt is, as a party chairman probably ought to be, optimistic, to put it mildly. He talked about how the whole country came together as one in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, then said, “I think the Republican Party [in Montana] is in the same position for 2020.”

One Republican taking a longer view, and liking what he sees, is Jeff Essmann, a longtime legislator and former state GOP chairman. When he held the chairmanship, Essmann said, it was all he could do to scrape up candidates to file in all the major races. This year, candidates are coming out of the woodwork. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who is seeking re-election, will probably be the only statewide Republican candidate without a primary opponent, Essmann said.

The biggest change in the political landscape, Essmann said, is that Montana voters, faced with two unknowns, used to pull the lever for the Democrat. Increasingly, he said, the person with the “R” in front of their name is the “default candidate.”

In 2016, for the first time ever, he said, a majority of Cascade County voters went Republican in the presidential race. Essmann said it is no longer inconceivable that such a thing might one day happen even in Butte-Silver Bow County.

Just ask Anita Milanovich. She is a lawyer and native of Indiana who moved to Butte a year ago with her husband, a native of the Mining City, after several years in Bozeman. She is also a Republican who has been fighting against state limits on political spending, and she is the parliamentarian for the GOP State Central Committee. Her political affiliation is a conversation starter, not a stopper, in Butte these days.

Anita Milanovich, parliamentarian for GOP state Central Committee. She lives in Butte, where Republicans are more welcome than they might have been in the past, she says. Photo by Ed Kemmick/Montana Free Press.

Milanovich said she sees a lot of similarities between Butte and Terre Haute, Indiana, where she’s from. Both are blue-collar towns that have gone through tough times but are full of resilient people, she said, and both are populated by people who hold fast to old-fashioned values centered on strong families and close communities.

The Democratic Party has been drifting away from those values for years, she said, and people in towns like Butte and Terre Haute have been drifting toward the Republican Party.

Not that she’s too outspoken about being a Republican, Milanovich said. There’s no easy way to win the trust of traditionally Democratic voters, she said, so the GOP just has to stay focused, stay together, and build relationships, showing people that “we really do provide a real alternative to the Democratic Party.”

Update, June 19: Following the publication of this piece, House Majority Leader Tschida asked to clarify his remarks about Republicans’ loyalty to party ideology.

“My inference on that topic, and my position, is that individuals who cannot currently comport themselves with our platform need to reassess how they identify themselves,” he said in an email. “That can include accepting and abiding by all the principles of the Republican platform. It does not infer that the only option is to leave the party.”

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana. He founded Last Best News, a digital newspaper based in Billings, in 2014, and recently published "Montana: The Lay of the Land—The Best of Last Best News."