Montana state capitol Helena
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus, understandably, received quite a lot of airtime last week. Its roughly 30 members — including Montana’s Matt Rosendale — were instrumental in delaying the speakership aspirations of former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, leading to a cascading series of 14 failed attempts to get the votes necessary to put McCarthy in control of the chamber before a 15th vote on Friday gave McCarthy the speaker’s gavel

It’s not the only such caucus currently asserting itself. Early last week, reporters received a press release announcing the creation of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a coalition of 14 named members in both chambers — and, according to the release, several more who declined to be named — helmed by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton. 

“It’s a personal choice,” Manzella told a commenter on a Facebook post announcing the caucus. “Some don’t want to put big targets on their backs. Some feel they can accomplish more by keeping it under wraps.”

Manzella said 80% of the new Freedom Caucus has to agree on an issue to push it as a legislative priority, but that members have already started honing in on some ideas. 

“And I can tell you that we have a two-page list that we’re currently putting into priority, and they include school choice and medical freedom and judicial reform and election integrity and redistricting, constitutional amendments, the list goes on,” she told Montana Free Press. 

The Montana Freedom Caucus is part of a national organization called the State Freedom Caucus Network, an organization affiliated with the Congressional Freedom Caucus launched in late 2021. It’s led by Republican operative and former Club for Growth Executive Director Andy Roth and former House Freedom Caucus Executive Director Justin Ouimette. The chapter in Montana launched concurrently with new freedom caucuses in the Wyoming and Idaho state legislatures. 

“The men and women of the Montana Freedom Caucus are built out of conservative steel,” Roth said in the press release. “We’re delighted to work with them to help expand freedom and limit the size of government in the Treasure State.”

But it was Rosendale who initiated the process in Montana, Manzella said. The congressman reached out to her in September to see if she was interested in launching a chapter in the state. 

“This is something that I can definitely sink my teeth into and align with,” Manzella said of the idea. 

A spokesperson for Rosendale’s office did not respond to questions about his role in the formation of the Montana statehouse caucus. 

Manzella said the national organization will not supply the state freedom caucus with financial resources, though it will pay a state director, Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee chair Darin Gaub. Gaub declined to speak on the record about his role. 

The state caucus looks like it’ll take some cues from its parent organization in D.C. 

“Did you watch the House Freedom Caucus block the election of the left leaning Speaker today? Small in number, but strong and strategic,” Manzella wrote on Facebook Jan. 2

“We hope to be as effective at the state level!”

Gumming up the works, Manzella told MTFP, can be a good thing.

“Sometimes the process needs to be slowed down, quite frankly,” she said. “And if we determine that that is our job so that we can attempt to message more effectively to our citizens so that they understand where we’re coming from, then that will be a tactic that we will use. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.” 

The caucus presents a foil to the coalition of comparative moderate Republicans called the Conservative Solutions Caucus. Manzella said the Freedom Caucus wasn’t specifically founded as an official successor to the “.38 Special group” that battled the Solutions Caucus in the 2019 session, but said it could play a similar role of organized opposition. 

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said he’s not particularly worried about the effects of the new caucus on the Legislature’s ability to work efficiently and avoid the kind of disruption that has overtaken the U.S. Congress this week. 

“I mean, there’s always things that could come up, but Montana is not D.C. and I like it that way,” he told Capitolized. “And I think a lot of my legislator friends here like it that way, too. So I don’t expect us to mirror D.C., even if there is the same caucus.”

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