When Majority Leader Brad Tschida rose on the floor of the Montana House on a March afternoon last year to speak against one of the most consequential pieces of legislation to ultimately pass the 2019 session, he had a clear message for his fellow Republicans:

“Be aware,” he said, “that anyone who votes for this bill is going to need to answer to the people back home, without a doubt.”

The measure, the HELP Act, renewed Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, which provides government-funded health care coverage to more than 80,000 Montanans. Authored by Great Falls Republican Ed Buttrey, the bill re-upped the program with work requirement provisions designed to make it more palatable to right-leaning legislators. Even so, hard-right opponents like Tschida called the renewal a waste of public dollars and blasphemy against conservative values. 

Medicaid expansion, Tschida said on the House floor, “sounds like a participation trophy for health care to me.”

Screenshot of House Majority Leader Brad Tschida speaking against Medicaid expansion on the House floor during the 2019 legislative session.

Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton countered Tschida, saying that expansion, initially enacted in 2015, had helped Montana hospitals survive by reducing the number of uninsured Montanans who turn to emergency rooms for last-resort medical help. 

“As a conservative Republican, I find it necessary to get up and speak,” Ballance said. “My rural hospital says the only reason they are still in business and viable today is because we took away some of the burden of the uncompensated care.”

The exchange illustrated two very different visions for Montana conservatism that have butted heads in the statehouse in recent years. Toward the middle is a business-first mindset that’s tight-fisted with public purse strings but willing to negotiate investments in health care, schools and infrastructure — an approach exemplified by the Legislature’s Conservative Solutions Caucus. And toward the right, a true-believer brand of no-new-taxes Republicans who define strict discipline to conservative ideology as their first and foremost legislative consideration.


Purity versus pragmatism

Of the roughly dozen legislative primaries pitting Solutions Caucus lawmakers against right-flanking challengers in 2020, none provides a starker example of the electoral consequences of Medicaid expansion than the showdown over an open seat in Senate District 44.

More than a year after the Medicaid expansion debate, with ballots mailed for Montana’s June 2 primary, the time has come to see whether Republican primary voters will, as Tschida warned, punish Buttrey, Ballance and the other Solutions Caucus lawmakers who forged legislative compromises with minority Democrats.

With Montana Republicans likely to hold onto legislative majorities — and the possibility of the governor’s office tipping into GOP control for the first time since 2005 — the outcome of the party’s legislative primaries may determine whether moderates or hardliners are in the driver’s seat for the 2021 session.

Tschida said last week that he was frustrated with the Solutions Caucus’ support for Medicaid expansion and tax increases in 2019, including a bill that increased the state bed tax to fund construction of a new Montana Heritage Center building in Helena. That legislation, he said, takes dollars out of the pockets of working Montanans and conflicts with the small-government values identified in the Republican Party platform.

Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, a leader of the Solutions Caucus, argued that his group is just trying to do the right thing for Montana. Critics, he said, are so wedded to conservative ideology they won’t navigate the messy realities of governing a state.

“It doesn’t matter if getting rid of Medicaid expansion will close all the rural hospitals — that’s the party line,” Jones said of the hard-line attitude.

However the legislative primaries shake out, control of the governor’s office will also play a central role in the 2021 Legislature, since a key part of the dynamic that empowered Solutions Caucus Republicans in 2019 was the fact that Republican House and Senate majorities had to get their bills past Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto pen.

Sen. Llew Jones, now a state representative and leader of the Solutions Caucus, listens to testimony during a special legislative session on Nov. 14, 2017. Credit: Thom Bridge / Helena Independent Record

As lawmakers of all stripes are fond of saying, passing legislation in Montana takes a “51-26-1” majority: 51 votes in the House, 26 votes in the Senate, and one signature from the governor. In 2019, that meant key bills like Medicaid expansion renewal passed with majorities composed of Solutions Caucus Republicans and Democrats, despite opposition from Tschida and other formal leaders in the Legislature’s GOP majority. Legislation that advanced to the governor with support from both wings of the GOP and Democratic opposition, in contrast, typically faced a veto.

A Republican governor — particularly one allied with the GOP’s right-most faction — could invert that dynamic, posing a veto threat to legislation supported by GOP centrists and Democrats.

As Solutions Caucus lawmakers seek re-election or run for other legislative offices this spring, at least 12 of the approximately 30 representatives and senators aligned with the group face primary challenges from right-wing opponents. On the flip side, comparatively moderate Republican candidates are challenging hard-liners in a handful of races.

While sorting lawmakers into factions is an imprecise exercise, Montana Free Press reporting following the 2019 session identified 20 Solutions Caucus-aligned representatives among 58 Republicans in the Montana House, indicating that the comparatively moderate wing of the GOP was within 10 votes of a majority stake in its delegation. In the Senate, MTFP identified 10 Solutions Caucus-aligned GOP senators among the chamber’s 30 Republicans.

To win control of the Legislature for their party, Democrats would need to pick up nine seats in the 100-member House and 6 in the 50-member Senate, where 16 GOP-held and nine Democrat-held seats are up for election this year. Clearing that threshold would require Democratic candidates to gain four seats in the House and at least three in the Senate in districts where Republican President Donald Trump won more than 55% of the vote in 2016. 

As the 2019 Legislature entered its final days, the Medicaid expansion renewal bill was headed toward Bullock’s desk — and hard-line Republicans were already looking to punish their colleagues who had enabled its passage.

During a late-session break in legislative proceedings, a few dozen right-leaning representatives posed for a photo at the front of the House Chamber, leaving colleagues who’d aligned with the Solutions Caucus to watch from their desks.

Rep. Theresa Manzella, of Hamilton, posted the image to her public Facebook page April 24, labeling the group the “.38 Special” in a dual nod to the group’s number and the revolver cartridge. Those lawmakers, she wrote, “consistently voted to uphold the Constitutions, adhere to Republican principles and limit government. Sadly, 38 votes doesn’t win you anything … as the passage of Medicaid Expansion clearly proves.”

“The voters of Montana will need to increase our numbers in the next election cycle if they truly want change,” she continued.

Photo of the 2019 Montana Legislature’s self-described .38 Special, as posted to Rep. Theresa Manzella’s Facebook page April 24, 2019.

One commenter responded by posting an image identifying the names and districts of Solutions Caucus members. “Everyone on this list needs to go,” they wrote.

Manzella is running in this spring’s primary against Ballance for the Senate District 44 seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, who is term-limited. With Ballance reporting $25,720 in spending and Manzella $12,013 as of April 15, the contest has shaped up as an unusually expensive primary for the Montana statehouse.

The Ballance-Manzella contest is far from the only primary race in play as GOP voters choose their party’s direction. There are at least 12 legislative races, for example, in which Solutions Caucus-aligned lawmakers are facing challenges from the right, according to conversations with lawmakers and endorsements published by partisan websites:

  1. Rep. Buttrey of Great Falls, the Medicaid expansion sponsor, is being challenged by Sally Tucker in House District 21. Tucker’s campaign website criticizes “ButtreyCare” and argues that Solutions Caucus Republicans “rebuffed any attempt by the real Republicans (the 38 Special) to amend or Constitutionally constrain this leftist dream legislation.”
  2. Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell, formerly the Kalispell police chief, is being challenged by Jerry O’Neil in House District 7.
  3. Rep. Denley Loge of St. Regis is being challenged by Mark French in House District 14.
  4. Rep. Joel Krautter of Sidney, who tried to establish an incentives program to lure college grads to rural Montana, is being challenged by Brandon Ler in House District 35.
  5. Rep. Eric Moore of Miles City, who negotiated support for bonded infrastructure projects during the 2019 session, is being challenged by Jerry Schillinger in House District 37.
  6. Rep. Geraldine Custer of Forsyth, who sponsored an aviation fuel tax increase to raise money for rural airfield upkeep in 2019, is being challenged by Amanda Scheidler in House District 39. 
  7. Rep. Bruce Grubbs of Bozeman is being challenged by Caleb Hinkle in House District 68.
  8. Rep. Julie Dooling of Helena, who carried the Montana Heritage Center funding bill in the Montana House, is being challenged by Tim Ravndal in House District 70.
  9. Rep. David Bedey of Hamilton is being challenged by Kenneth Allen in House District 86.
  10. Rep. Sharon Greef of Florence is being challenged by James Crews in House District 88.
  11. Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls is being challenged by Jeni Dodd in Senate District 10.
  12. Sen. Tom Richmond of Billings is being challenged by former Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar in Senate District 28.

Additionally, there are at least four races in which lawmakers from the .38 Special group are facing challenges from the middle, creating the possibility of an expanded Solutions Caucus:

In addition to the Manzella-Ballance matchup, a few primaries in which multiple Republicans are vying for open Senate seats could play a role in the GOP’s balance of power. For example, Rep. Walt Sales of Manhattan, a Solutions Caucus ally, is one of three candidates in the GOP primary in Senate District 35.

As June 2 approaches, the contest for the hearts and minds of the state’s GOP electorate is playing out on partisan blogs and social media.

The Montana Daily Gazette, run by activist Jordan Hall of Sidney, has emerged as a platform for the party’s hard-right wing, publishing endorsements in House and Senate races, commentary critical of the state’s pandemic public health measures, and attacks on candidates including Ballance and Krautter, the Sidney representative seeking re-election. The site also promotes the Legistats website, which purports to score GOP lawmakers on party loyalty

Representative Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, listens to debate in the Montana House in 2017. Manzella is running in this spring’s primary against Solutions Caucus member Nancy Ballance for the Senate District 44 seat. Credit: Freddy Monares / UM Legislative News Service

Anonymous authors aligned with the Solutions Caucus camp have set up a blog of their own, The Extremist Chronicles. One recent post aims to debunk alleged falsehoods being spread about the Medicaid expansion bill. Another attempts to smear Manzella by sharing a photo of her apparently posing with former President Bill Clinton.

Tschida, meanwhile, has weighed in on Facebook in support of right-wing challengers such as Brandon Lers, who’s running against Krautter in Sidney.

“It will be a pleasure having a true conservative representing HD 35 in 2021!” Tschida wrote on Lers’ campaign Facebook page May 9, adding an emoji-punctuated endorsement of the candidate’s facial hair.

On his own public Facebook page, on May 14 Tschida posted a version of the .38 Special photo styled like an internet meme with superimposed text saying the group had earned a reputation for being difficult to work with because they refused to compromise with “the few liberals that Montanans mistakenly elected as Republicans.”

“We’d like to agree with the liberal, progressive wing of the Republican Party,” he wrote. “BUT THEN WE’D ALL BE WRONG!”


Which way is right?

In the Flathead’s HD 11, incumbent firebrand Derek Skees faces Dee Kirk-Boon.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.