Eyes across Montana this week were affixed to the slow drip of precinct results in the neck-and-neck U.S. House GOP primary between former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Al Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, perennial candidate and former state lawmaker — a battle that went to Zinke two days after polls closed.
But there was just as much action further down the ballot, where a slew of bitterly contested Republican state legislative primaries highlighted dividing lines in the caucus ahead of the 2023 legislative session, one in which Republicans hope to solidify a bicameral supermajority and build on the right-wing agenda they advanced in the first year of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s tenure.
Candidates hashed out those divisions in 31 contested Republican primaries across the House and Senate this year. In nine cases, it was GOP incumbents facing challengers from within the party. Several of the races were in Flathead County, the de facto seat of power of Republicans in the state.
Generally, the candidates broke into two loosely coalesced camps, whether or not they actively solicited such categorizations: those aligned with what’s come to be known as the Conservative Solutions Caucus, a group of self-described pragmatists who reached their peak influence under 16 years of Democratic governors, working with minority legislative Democrats on issues like Medicaid expansion, and those aligned with the ideological hard right, headed by lawmakers including Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton and Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula — a group determined to oust so-called RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”).
In 2020, the hard-right, calling themselves the “.38 Special” group, was successful in toppling comparatively moderate Republicans such as Reps. Nancy Ballance, Joel Krautter, Bruce Grubbs and others. But, with one significant exception, the effort to continue those gains seems to have stalled this primary.
“The solutions caucus was aggressive in defending its policies and its members,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the influential House Appropriations Committee chair and de facto leader of the GOP’s legislative moderate coalition.
“For the most part as I look at it, as I look at the House and the Senate, for all the push-pull and work that goes into these things, [the balance of power] looks similar at this point,” said former Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, a consistent vote in the Solutions Caucus.
The candidate Garner endorsed to take over his seat, public relations professional Courtenay Sprunger, emerged victorious in the House District 7 primary over Dave Ingram, a conservative hardliner backed by Skees and the Flathead County Republican Central Committee, which, unlike some other county committees, wades into primaries.
Sprunger was among several candidates targeted by the central committee, ostensibly for not representing Republican values. Others included Tony Brockman, who also won his primary in House District 9.
The exception comes in the form of Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth. One of the most reliable buckers of the GOP party line, Custer vied for an open Senate seat previously held by termed-out longtime lawmaker Duane Ankney against Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, the former House Judiciary Committee Chair.
Custer touted endorsements from groups ranging from unions to the Montana Stockgrowers Association, as well as her long experience as Rosebud County Clerk and Recorder. Usher bested Custer by more than 20 points, replacing Ankney’s relatively moderate voice with a fiercely ideological conservative.
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, tallied another win for the hard-line in his primary for Senate District 49, a seat previously held by longtime Democratic stalwart Diane Sands. He’s set to take on Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, in the general election in November.
Incumbent Republicans backed by the Skees camp — Reps. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, Mark Noland, R-Big Fork, Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls and Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade — also held onto their seats, with Hinkle fending off Bruce Grubbs by more than 40 points.
The right-wing faction did not, however, expand its foothold in the state House. In the St. Regis area, Rep. Denley Loge fended off a challenge from Randy Mitchell, who announced his candidacy at a far-right event called the Red Pill Festival last year.
“The silent majority spoke, and said we want things to get done,” Loge said. “They know I’m the kind that’s working on trying to find solutions to problems rather than just complain.”
Primary battles between Solutions Caucus legislators and right-flanking challengers produced a mixed bag
With the results of Montana’s 2020 primary election now fully in, it appears that a concerted effort by right-flanking primary challengers to oust more moderate members of the Montana Legislature’s Republican delegation has met with mixed results.
Loge said that shortly after his victory he received a note from a constituent warning that he would be watched during the session.
“Well, the 1,900 voters who supported me will be watching me as well,” he said. “I still live in the area, I go to the grocery store, I’m accountable every day.”
Several political action committees and nonprofits also weighed in on this year’s primaries. Americans for Prosperity Montana, the Koch brothers-backed conservative group, spent primarily in support of three candidates: Usher, Hinkle and Fuller. It was the first time the state organization directly weighed in on GOP primaries, said state director David Herbst.
“We are looking for 50+1 [votes] in our legislative efforts,” Herbst said.
In the Usher-Custer matchup, for example, Herbst pointed to the latter’s past support of Medicaid expansion as a reason for the group to put its resources behind Usher.
Back in the Flathead, a PAC called Flathead First spent tens of thousands of dollars to back more moderate candidates for Legislature and county positions. Another called Conservatives4MT did the same across the state, backing, for example, House District 88 candidate Wayne Rusk in his successful race against opponent Alan Lackey, a consistent agitator against COVID-19 protocols.
Manzella so full-throatedly endorsed Lackey — on legislative letterhead, to boot — that she elicited a rebuke from former Republican lawmaker Rep. Ed Greef. The Conservatives4MT PAC, she said, is “anything but conservative, and sent out multiple hit pieces on real conservatives.”
“We consider ourselves residents of the whole valley,” said Sue Rolfing, speaking on behalf of the Flathead First PAC. “We were looking for people who were more interested in advancing the interests of our community instead of kowtowing to our party bosses and special interests — people who would work together with all the parties in Helena.”
Now, as has become a biennial tradition for the caucus, the GOP must show a face of unity ahead of the general election and the 2023 session, despite months of purity tests and bitter campaigning.
“Now that we’re past the primary, my rallying call is that we have to stay together. We are not as divided as we look on the outside,” said Ronalee Skees, chair of the Flathead County Republican Central Committee. “I think that there’s people who feel like we have to fight against someone, rather than for something.”
She maintains, for the record, that she was not involved in the committee’s decisions to endorse specific candidates.
Skees mounted an unsuccessful bid to succeed her husband, Derek, in House District 11. Derek Skees ran a campaign for Public Service Commission, but appears to have lost to fellow Flathead right-winger Annie Bukacek in a tight race, barring a result-changing recount.
Despite her plea for unity, Ronalee Skees acknowledged that her husband is often one of the loudest voices calling out fellow Republicans.
“I am me and Derek is Derek,” she said. “As the chair, I have tried really hard to be sure that I am working with each person individually.”
Manzella, for her part, wouldn’t be surprised to see factional divisions bleed into the session. It’s the nature of things, she said.
“After serving 8 years in the legislature, I think it’s a safe bet that there will be angst between the two sides of the Republican Party, and it’s sure to bleed into the legislative session,” she said via text. “We win some, and we lose some. That rule applies to everyone.”
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