The Montana GOP’s Officers Convention kicks off in Helena today. Tomorrow delegates will elect a new chairman.
The candidates vying to succeed interim party chair Liane Johnson
Rick Breckenridge from Proctor is running to be state party chairman. He says he wants the Republican Party to refocus on the conservative message that led to a groundswell of involvement in tax day “tea parties.”
Will Deschamps of Missoula says Montana Republicans have been ineffective at coming together to deliver the core Republican message that he said plays well in the state.
As Montana Republicans prepare to choose the leader of their party, a recent USA Today poll found that most Americans don’t know who speaks for the Republican party.
A 52% majority of those surveyed couldn't come up with a name when asked to specify "the main person" who speaks for Republicans today. Of those who could, the top response was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (13%), followed in order by former vice president Dick Cheney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Former president George W. Bush ranked fifth, at 3%.
I suspect if a similar poll were conducted in Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg would probably top the list, however the Montana GOP isn’t immune from some of the problems plaguing the party nationally.
There’s a growing rift in the Montana GOP between hard-line conservatives and Ron Paul loyalists and moderate conservatives. Remember, it was just last year that former state Rep. Roger Koopman put together a political hit list of “14 socialist incumbent Republicans.” Of the 12 House members on the list, Bruce Malcolm of Emigrent, John Ward of Helena and Carol Lambert of Broadus, were defeated in the primary by more more socially conservative candidates who went on to win House seats in the general election. In the Senate, John Brueggeman of Polson was on the list but didn’t face a primary challenger, and Dave Lewis of Helena is up for reelection next year.
If Breckenridge’s support for Ron Paul is any indication, he is probably the more hard-line candidate for the party chairmanship.
Breckenridge is also touting the enthusiasm created by the Ron Paul supporters who got involved last year in an effort to carry the Montana primary for the former presidential candidate. He also will make a point to emphasize the anti-abortion portion of the party platform, alongside the key message of limited government.
"I think there is some fear of the enthusiasm that Dr. Paul has energized," he said. "But once we get everything working, I think the finger-pointing will stop."
Meanwhile Deschamps, a Missoula Republican, seems to be more focused on rebranding the state party and maintaining the GOP’s modest gains in the legislature.
Deschamps said raising money, winning legislative seats, re-electing Rehberg and better coordinating efforts would be priorities for him.
He noted victories for Montana Republicans last year, a very poor year nationally for the Republican brand.
Deschamps said the state re-elected Rehberg and gave the GOP control of the state Senate and a split in the House - one of just a handful of states where Republicans picked up state legislative seats.
There are areas that need to be improved, such as recruiting good candidates for tough races, he said.
"We have lost our way. We just need to find a different way of crafting our message so people listen to us," Deschamps said.
The Montana GOP has certainly struggled to secure big wins on the statewide level, but Deschamps raises a good point: Over the past two election cycles Montana was one of the only states in the nation where Republicans gained seats in the Legislature.
In 2006 Democrats gained 350 seats in about 6,000 races across the country, and took control of legislatures in 10 states. But that same year in Montana, Democrats were only able to gain control of the Legislature when life-long Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow switched party affiliation, giving Democrats control of the Senate.
Last year Republicans managed to take back the Senate, even as they lost all five statewide races from Governor to Secretary of State.
Some people in Helena talk about how the Montana GOP is “in shambles,” but they’ve had relatively decent success at the legislative level while the national party slips further into disarray. It’ll be interesting to see if the party changes direction under a new chairman.