Political party officers conventions aren’t usually very exciting events.
At an officer’s convention the party faithful gather to take a look at the rules and bylaws of the party, eat, drink and be merry, attend speeches and workshops, and then near the end of the two-day convention delegates from around the state cast their votes to elect a the next chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer of the party.
In most cases we know who the next chairperson will be going into the event. It’s been years since the Montana GOP has a serious contest for party chairman and the rest of the officer positions have very little actual power within the party.
For the most part, officers conventions are dull gatherings to the outside observer. Unlike the platform and candidate conventions there usually isn’t a whole lot of energy surrounding these much smaller affairs. After all, how many Montana voters know who their party officers are…or care? It’s ‘inside baseball' politics that only the most committed party members pay much attention to. That goes for Republicans and Democrats.
However, the Montana GOP’s officers convention in Bozeman at the end of the week has the potential for a little more excitement than in years past. I don’t expect there to be too much in the way of fireworks, but here’s a rundown of some possibly interesting developments heading into Friday’s convention:
Three-way race for chair
It’s been well documented that the Montana GOP is not, at the moment, a unified party. The chairman race highlights one of divisions within the party.
Incumbent party chair Will Deschamps, of Missoula, is being challenged by Don Hart, of Bozeman, and Gary Carlson, of Victor.
Most of the so-called “liberty Republicans,” many of whom are Ron Paul supporters, are said to be backing Hart. The more mainstream or “establishment” Republicans are throwing their support to Deschamps, who has already served two two-year terms as Montana GOP chair. Carlson may draw votes from both camps, but it’s not clear where his base, if any, stems from.
Former Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, is leading the charge for Hart as part of what he called a “anybody but Deschamps” movement within the party.
Skees, was lost his statewide race for State Auditor last fall, said the opposition to Deschamps is high among Montana Republicans because of the poor GOP record in statewide races over the past four years.
But the chairmanship race a three-way race, which means Carlson and Hart will likely divide any opposition to Deschamps. If all three stay in the race my guess is Deschamps wins reelection to a third term by a relatively comfortable margin. Do as many as 60 percent of the delegates oppose Deschamps’ chairmanship, as Skees claims? We’ll see.
But as the incumbent who has built strong ties to the party establishment it’s unlikely Deschamps will be defeated by an insurgent in a three-way race. All he needs is a majority of votes to hang on to his seat.
Skees is supporting a proposed change to the GOP bylaws that could shake up the they way delegates elect officers in the future. Under the proposal the successful nominee for party chair would need to receive 50 percent of the overall vote.
According to party executive director Bowen Greenwood, even if the GOP rules committee recommends the proposal and the Central Committee adopts it, the new bylaw wouldn’t take effect until the next officers election in 2015. The change would also require a 2/3 vote from the voting delegates, which seems unlikely.
‘Proxy battle’ in race for vice chair
The very public division between legislative Republicans may play out in the race for vice chair, where Sen. Jennifer Fielder, of Thompson Falls, is challenging incumbent Rep. Christy Clark, of Choteau.
While the race for vice chair rarely garners much attention, some Republicans say this year’s vice chair election is proxy battle: A Fielder win will show that the majority of the party faithful support the hardline stances of the conservatives in the GOP Senate leadership. A Clark victory means the GOP faithful want leaders who are willing to work across on the aisle on major policy issues.
Fielder, who is backed by Senate President Jeff Essmann, represents the right-wing of the party.
Fielder is the president of the Women in Republican Leadership, or WIRL. Fielder said it was through her involvement in that organization that was urged by colleagues to run for the vice chair position and that she wasn’t recruited to run for the spot.
However, Essmann acknowledged last week that his support of Fielder is a follow-through on a promise he made to Clark last session that he would support her removal from office.
Clark approached Essmann during the session to find out why one of her bill,s which had passed the House by a wide margin, hadn’t been assigned to a committee.
Essmann told Clark he was not pleased with the fact that she changed her vote on third reading from ‘yeah’ to ‘nay’ on a Montana Family Foundation-backed school choice bill that was a priority for the conservative leadership team.
Clark, a majority whip in the House, represents the self-described “responsible Republican” coalition in the House and Senate. Clark was among a group of Republican lawmakers in the House who occasionally bucked the hard-line conservative agenda and worked with Democrats to pass key pieces of legislation last session.
Will Daines make an announcement?
There’s some speculation that Montana’s new Republican Congressman, Steve Daines, may make a big announcement on Saturday. Will the first-term representative in the U.S. House jump into the U.S. Senate race to replace retiring Montana senior Sen. Max Baucus?
The answer to that question may very well be ‘yes,’ but it appears unlikely that Daines will announce his decision at the Montana GOP officers convention. Sources close to Daines say we shouldn’t expect any major news from Saturday’s keynote speaker.