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October 12, 2023

The Ravalli County Republican Central Committee voted Monday to oust its longtime chair, the climax of a long-running factional struggle between hard-right members affiliated with the John Birch Society and the county’s GOP establishment. 

By a vote of 21-13, the committee elected former Ravalli County Commissioner Ron Stoltz as central committee chair over Terry Nelson, who had served in that capacity since 2008. Nelson, a planner and surveyor by trade and Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2016, will continue in his role as state party secretary, a position to which he was elected at a statewide convention this June. 

Stoltz was nominated for chair by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, the chair of the Montana Freedom Caucus and a prominent figure among Republican hardliners in Montana. She noted during Monday’s county party meeting that Stoltz was an early political mentor to her and recruited her to run for a seat in the state Legislature. Some say that he lost his county commission primary in 2014 (by almost 50 points) because he was “too conservative,” Manzella said. There is, she said, no such thing. 

“Some say that his constitutional conservatism will cost us votes as a county,” she said. “That hasn’t panned out to be true in my case. They say to win you have to have a big tent and be much more moderate. And I would say that when we go to our Montana GOP conventions, it is the constitutional conservatives that win the day at our conventions, on pretty much every vote, including our pro-life-without-exception stance.”

The vote was preceded by a successful motion to adopt a variety of quasi-election integrity measures, including a requirement that the vote be conducted in public, that each candidate appoint observers, and that the number of votes counted must equal the number of people allowed to vote.

“A built-in audit, I like it,” Manzella commented.

Capitolized remarked to an attendee that the county party members seem like a pretty suspicious bunch, especially given the facts that Ravalli County is overwhelmingly Republican and that there were hardly a few dozen people voting. 

“If you’re not suspicious in politics, you’re blind,” the attendee replied. 

In brief remarks prior to the vote, Stoltz asserted that the county party has been “asleep” and led by a “burnt-out” chair. Nelson, making his pitch, said he became involved in county Republican politics to “beat the heck out of Democrats” and claimed “we have done that,” noting that the county has voted increasingly Republican since he took the committee’s reins. 

“If your purpose here is to beat up on other Republicans, I don’t want to be a head of that,” he said.

Division between Republican hardliners and comparative moderates is a key feature of Ravalli County politics. Self-described “Reagan Republican” lawmakers like Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, are regularly pilloried as “Republicans In Name Only” by members of their own party in their own county. The county central committee has been in a state of disarray since at least April, when members affiliated with Manzella began arguing that the committee should hold a convention to elect new officers ahead of the statewide party officer’s convention this summer. That would be in contravention of party bylaws, which state that county conventions should be held between August and November. Nelson said he received a determination from the state party to that effect. 

But when he presented that finding at a meeting of the central committee that spring, chaos erupted, multiple people said, with attendees disputing the state party’s interpretation and denigrating other Republican officials from the county. Nelson, from that point on, stopped holding central committee meetings. 

The faction opposed to Nelson — Manzella; former legislative candidate Alan Lackey and his wife, Terri, who lead the local John Birch Society chapter; a precinct captain named Doug Bohn and others — splintered off from the central committee and began holding their own meetings, and even electing officers. Nelson, they contended, had effectively resigned his position. The schism manifested during the statewide officer’s convention in June, when Ravalli County activists attempted through the party’s credentialing committee to prevent delegates from the county central committee from being seated. That was unsuccessful, though a similar ploy effectively prevented delegates from the Missoula County GOP committee from participating in the convention. 

In September, the group filed a complaint with the state party questioning Nelson’s legitimacy as chair. The party responded in October, writing in a letter addressed to Nelson, Stoltz and Manzella that the complainants provided no evidence that Nelson was not duly elected chair or that he had somehow resigned his position, and concluding that the complaint largely relied on grievances that had little to do with bylaw or statute. 

“Finding that Chairman Nelson remains the Chairman of the RCCC, then, it follows pursuant to the above Party Rules that only Nelson could preside over a convention and that the convention is to be held between August 1 and November 1 in each odd-numbered year,” an attorney for the state party, Emily Jones, wrote. “Consequently, the ‘conventions’ the complaint alleges were held without Chairman Nelson’s participation were not in compliance with the Party Rules and of no effect.”

Also: People pretending to be legitimate representatives of the county party, Jones wrote, could be violating the law. 

But the county party still needed to elect new officers by November. That created a tricky but unavoidable calculus: If the Nelson crew could get supporters to show up to the vote — which they’d already been doing less and less, even before Nelson stopped holding meetings — they could officially slap down the insurgents. But if the more activated hardliners showed up, they could legitimize the shadow central committee. 

And the latter is what happened. After Nelson’s defeat, all of the remaining officer positions went uncontested. Alan and Terri Lackey were elected state committeeman and committeewoman. 

“The thing that concerns me is, I don’t think you’re going to see a Democrat elected in Ravalli County, at least for the next decade, but the infighting could cause the Republican numbers to go down and we could lose statewide elected office,” Nelson said in an interview Thursday. 

He says he’s not opposed to the hardliners’ brand of conservatism so much as their tactics. 

He recalled a story: Before Nelson became chair of the central committee, it was led by a man named Dan Cox. He, too, faced an uprising by a group of committed dogmatists. Eventually he left the GOP and became a Libertarian. In 2012, he ran for U.S. Senate, and received about 32,000 votes — greater than the margin between Republican Denny Rehberg and the candidate who beat him, Democrat Jon Tester. 

“These people are so idealistic, they don’t understand that this is politics and not war,” Nelson said. 

Manzella, in a statement texted to Capitolized, said she is happy to have the elections over and “strong, principled, transparent, accountable leadership in place to chart a positive path forward.”

The election results also mean that the county party will now be led by people with a considerably more extreme approach than most of the Bitterroot Valley’s representatives in the state Legislature — Bedey in particular.

Bedey — no stranger to taking stands that aggravate other members of his party — shared with Capitolized a letter he intends to publish in a local newspaper. In it, he writes that the county party has declined “into an entity that is no longer recognizable as being Republican.”

“Over the past year, the behavior of several of its members has driven longstanding, hardworking conservatives from active participation in RCRCC activities,” he wrote. “This corresponded with a radical fringe’s successful effort to infiltrate and then gain control of the committee. Many of its vanguard are adherents of the John Birch Society (JBS), a group that embraced wild conspiracy theories in the 1960s (Does any sane person believe that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist spy?), continues teaching that the Civil War resulted from an Illuminati-Marxist plot to which President Lincoln was an accomplice, and whose signature policy position today is advocating for the unconstitutional ‘nullification’ of federal laws by state legislatures.”

In times of unease, people look to the loudest, most strident voices that offer easy solutions, Bedey said in an interview Thursday. But a party that alienates the center, he said, may “limp along for a while, but will eventually fail.” He emphasized that he has the same message for Democrats, as much as they “may relish the skirmish going on within the Republican Party.” 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Changing of the Guard in Ravalli County

Outgoing Ravalli County Republican Central Committee Chair Terry Nelson (in white shirt at right) swears in the committee’s new leadership team. At center, in black, is Ron Stoltz, a former Ravalli County commissioner who defeated Nelson in October 2023 for control of the county party. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / MTFP

COPP Dismisses Complaint Against Juras

Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices has dismissed an ethics complaint against Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras concerning a home she rents in Helena from the Montana Family Institute.

The state Democratic Party filed the complaint against Juras in December 2022, alleging that she was receiving an improper gift from the Family Institute, a conservative advocacy group with ties to Gov. Greg Gianforte, in the form of discounted rent on the institute-owned property where she resides while in Helena. The house, in a neighborhood adjacent to the Capitol, was previously owned by the Gianforte Family Foundation, which transferred ownership to the institute in December 2020.

Under state law, public officials in Montana are forbidden from accepting “a gift of substantial value or substantial economic benefit.” 

The Democrats’ complaint suggested that Juras was receiving the rental at a discounted rate because of her position, though the party submitted no evidence other than the Family Institute’s nonprofit paperwork from 2016 to 2020 (a period in which the institute didn’t own the house) which showed no rental income. 

Commissioner Chris Gallus dismissed the complaint on its face, writing that Democrats failed to even describe a possible violation of state ethics code. Juras, he said, also demonstrated that she has been paying rent to the Family Institute. 

“There is simply no allegation in the complaint which would allow me to conclude even a potential violation exists,” Gallus said. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

At their 2023 convention, Montana Republicans made their plan clear: Beat Tester, take the U.S. Senate: While most of this summer’s state GOP convention was focused on defeating Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, county party infighting also reared its head.

COPP dismissed Montana Democrats’ ethics complaint involving Juras’ Helena rental: The Daily Montanan was first to report the COPP’s dismissal of the ethics complaint against Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras.