The crowd at the 2022 Montana GOP Platform Convention Saturday was often hostile to Rep. David Bedey, a bespectacled, besuited Republican from Hamilton whose comparatively moderate voting record has more than once put him at odds with hardliners in the Legislature and party base.
“I understand the concern that everyone in this room has over the integrity of our elections, and I think there’s plenty of reason to be concerned, but not in the state of Montana,” he said to the assembly.
A majority of the 176 party delegates assembled at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center began to jeer, then quieted. They’d been debating an amendment that would put theories of election fraud popular among segments of the GOP front and center in the election plank of the party’s platform.
“These unfounded attacks on Montana’s election system do nothing but degrade the confidence our citizens have in this fundamental process,” Bedey continued. “If we’re the party of the Constitution, if we’re the conservative party that wants to defend our institutions, we should quit throwing gasoline on the fire.”
His argument was evidently unpersuasive. After a lengthy vote count, the convention added new language to the platform:
“We ask and encourage the members of the Montana state Legislature to do everything in their power to put the responsibility of election integrity and accountability back in the hands of We the People, and that the members of the Montana Legislature do everything in their power to complete any ongoing investigations into the 2020 election, and mandate and fund a conversion to a manual or mechanical vote count,” it read in part.
‘NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ENTIRE REPUBLICAN PARTY’
Election administration was a main focus of this weekend’s convention, a biennial opportunity for Republican lawmakers and state and county party officials to amend the party’s platform, a 15-part expression of values and policy objectives that will, at least in theory, guide the upcoming legislative agenda and state GOP messaging in the immediate future.
The platform is built like a sprawling piece of legislation: Delegates break off into plank committees (meetings that were closed to the press), debate amendments to the existing document, then bring them to a vote before convention members.
In the halls, people pressed palms, made deals and tried to whip votes for upcoming leadership races. Top-of-bill officials like Gov. Greg Gianforte gave speeches. Top-of-ballot candidates like U.S. House hopeful Ryan Zinke rallied support for their races.
“I’ve seen the inside of the deep state,” Zinke told supporters. “It is as evil as you think it is. I know it’s evil. They fear me. I’m gonna go after them, and I’m gonna rip their heart out.”
A majority of the delegates repeatedly approved amendments to the platform that steer the party further to the right at a time when it already enjoys near-historic control over the state. Republicans hold all of Montana’s statewide offices, are close to a bicameral supermajority in the state Legislature they hope to achieve in the November election, and have a fair shot at winning both of the state’s two newly districted U.S. House seats.
On abortion, the convention approved language stating that the party supports an outright ban on elective abortion without exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. On national affairs, it voted for an amendment calling for people held in detention in Washington, D.C. for their participation in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to be granted due process and released on their own recognizance. On public safety, the state party now officially supports armed security in schools.
Those votes don’t necessarily mean all these objectives will become law next session — especially given judicial checks that have repeatedly foiled certain GOP legislative ambitions.
Nor do they mean that all the party’s potential voters agree, Bedey noted after the dust settled. The nearly 200 convention delegates represent the most activated core of the party machinery, those who are willing, able and eager to spend a weekend in Billings crafting the party’s guiding principles.
“This is not to say anything to disparage the people here, but the point I want to make is that this is not representative of the entire Republican Party,” Bedey told Montana Free Press. “And it’s certainly not representative of the conservative or Republican views of the people in my district.”
That point represents one of the weekend’s key conflicts. Several conservative hardliners lamented that by the time the legislative session rolls around, lawmakers seem to forget the platform tenets the party approved just a few months before.
“Republicans are the ones who determine what it means to be a Republican,” said termed-out Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, one of the figureheads of the party’s far-right wing, to MTFP. “That is driven by the citizen who joins the Republican Party. That should be a device by which we judge and measure and accomplish things in a Legislature. We have a Legislature that doesn’t even care about the platform, doesn’t even read it, doesn’t even understand it.”
Skees, backed by party allies, successfully introduced platform language to bridge that gap. The party now expects the GOP legislative caucus to identify bills each session that link to specific elements of the platform, to recommend those bills to members before a floor vote, and to pass at least 20 such bills in each chamber to ensure that “Party Platform goals become a priority each session.”
At the end of the session, a report is to be issued to all members of the party tallying each legislator’s votes on those bills.
Similar language had failed on a 3-3 vote in the convention’s resolutions committee a day earlier, but Skees revived the amendment before the full convention on Saturday ahead of all other platform planks — platform proposals brought last, he noted, are often killed.
“What I’m saying is this brings us an accountability tool,” Skees told MTFP.
The amendment didn’t pass without criticism, and not only from the relative moderates who generally brand themselves the Conservative Solutions Caucus.
“I think the premise is good in that Republican legislators should be aware of and supportive of the party platform — that’s what makes us Republicans,” said House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. “That part I’m totally supportive of. But I don’t believe that most of the people that voted on that resolution are very familiar with the legislative process and what we do as legislators.”
‘SOME PEOPLE LIKE THROWING BRICKS’
The amendments to the platform’s election plank come on the heels of a pair of resolutions passed by the Ravalli and Lewis and Clark county Republican central committees rejecting the results of the 2020 presidential election and calling for ballots to be hand-counted in the future. The county resolution language specifically denying the validity of President Joe Biden’s victory did not make it into the state party platform — as it did, for example, in the recently adopted Texas state GOP platform — but other echoes of widely debunked election fraud conspiracies did.
“We have a third party in the voting machines that are actually voting for us,” argued Alan Lackey, a delegate and former legislative candidate from Ravalli County who brought the language forward, a reference to the theory that voting machines were hacked in the 2020 election.
Elsewhere in the convention center, the same case was made by Pat Colbeck, a former Republican state senator from Michigan who’s since found a second career traveling the country and raising suspicions of election fraud. He’s now selling a book called “The 2020 Coup: What happened? What we can do?”
“If you wanna get confidence in the integrity of our election, you gotta get more transparency, not less,” Colbeck told MTFP.
He’s known another key figure in the election-doubting corner of Montana politics, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, for about a decade, he said. Thursday evening at the convention center, he gave a series of presentations on election integrity to the Montana Federation of Republican Women, with Manzella present, using language that would in part make it into the party’s election plank a few days later.
“Our citizens have lost faith in our election systems,” Manzella told other delegates Saturday. “There are back doors into these systems. It’s been happening for a very long time right under our noses.”
Bedey, among others, unsuccessfully sought to defend the integrity of Montana’s election administration — especially in the build-up to a midterm election that the GOP would like its voters to show up for.
“Anyone who has looked carefully at the operation of vote-counting machines, who has considered the statutory post-election audit process … and frankly has spent the time to actually look at the machines, can determine that no, they cannot actually be connected to the Internet,” he said to the delegates.
With the Montana Republican Party scheduled to convene its platform convention this week, GOP committees in the Bitterroot and Lewis and Clark County passed resolutions rejecting the 2020 presidential election results in hopes of triggering a state-level debate.
Dissent was similarly rebuffed on the issue of abortion. Republican legislators passed a series of bills in the 2021 session restricting access to the procedure, including a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation and enactment of extra steps to obtain a medication abortion. For now, those policies are held up in litigation based on a 1999 Montana Supreme Court ruling protecting abortion access under the state Constitution’s broad privacy protections — precedent the state attorney general has asked the court to reverse.
The party platform’s abortion language, drafted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overruling of Roe v. Wade, goes further than the GOP’s accomplishments last year, telegraphing future legislation on the issue likely to come in the 2023 session and the possibility that state protections for abortion are weakened by pending state Supreme Court decisions.
The first to take a contrary stand on the issue was Heidi Steiger, a college student and delegate from Butte who drew a connection between the platform’s abortion language and the Skees amendment identifying platform bills. The party, she argued, needs to leave room for nuance.
“I don’t like abortions. But I would rather have regulated, safe and legal abortions than unregulated, unsafe, illegal abortions that we cannot control,” she told delegates, provoking boos.
She proposed to remove a reference to life beginning at conception.
“I was involved in helping put this language in here: life begins at conception. Period,” Skees responded, to cheers.
Bedey, similarly, sought to add exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
“There are bona fide cases where there is more than one life in play. We ought to defer to the family and to God in that case,” he said. His motion was unsuccessful.
“What makes [Bedey’s proposal] even harder for me is the cases of rape and incest,” said Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade. “I do not believe the baby should be responsible for the sins of another person, for the crimes of another person.”
Those divisions highlight a long-standing moderate-hard line split in the GOP on a number of issues — though this weekend’s convention didn’t come close to being the party’s most contentious, noted former lawmaker and former state GOP chairman Jeff Essmann.
“On my scale of 1-100, in terms of vocalized or personal animosity over my lifetime, this rated only about a 50,” he told MTFP.
But hardliners have chipped away at moderate voices in the party over the course of several legislative primaries, and the Skees amendment institutionalizes a mechanism for keeping it that way.
“The ones pursuing a scoring system are kind of — from my perspective — seeking a parliamentary approach,” Essmann said. “One that elevates loyalty to the party over loyalty to the voters with respect to party principles. This has to require some give and take.”
Winning two additional legislative seats in the upcoming election would grant Republicans a supermajority across both chambers, one that would allow the caucus to — for example — bring constitutional amendments to the ballot without needing votes from Democrats.
“I’m enthusiastic about our chances about the Republican majority in Montana,” Gianforte said in his address to the convention. ”I think we can paint our state an even brighter color of red.”
And there’s now an incentive — an accountability measure, as Skees put it — for lawmakers across such a supermajority to act in fealty to the platform. If Republicans aren’t willing to bring the majority of their bills in alignment with the platform, they should consider running under the banner of a different party, Skees said.
That there are internal conflicts within the GOP doesn’t necessarily bother Essmann, who chaired portions of the proceedings this weekend.
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