MTPR

Montana Primary Pits GOP Moderates, Conservatives

Jun 7, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Control over Montana's Legislature is at stake as voters stream to the polls Tuesday to decide election battles between Republican conservatives and moderates, with about a dozen high-profile races that could determine which faction will steer the state Legislature in 2017.

Republicans currently hold majorities in the House and Senate, but the outcome of the primary could decide if GOP hardliners will control the agenda at the Capitol when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Republicans have an 18-seat advantage over Democrats in the House and an eight-seat advantage in the Senate.

While Democrats are unlikely to win enough seats to wrest control of either chamber, key victories by GOP moderates could allow them to exert more influence in debates over infrastructure funding and other contentious issues.

In the last two legislative sessions, conservatives have been angered by moderate Republicans forming voting blocs with Democratic lawmakers to advance or stop key bills.

Because some districts lean strongly Republican, the winner in the primary could well decide who will eventually hold the seat.

"In these head-to-head competitions in some districts, between the more moderate and conservative branches of the Republican Party, the outcomes one way or the other will determine what happens in the Legislature next year, in terms of policy outcomes," said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College.

Republicans acknowledge the primary is nothing less than a battle for the party's heart and soul, between ideological purists who seek to adhere to the party platform and moderates more willing to find middle ground with Democrats.

Republicans are facing off in 10 Senate races and 26 House races for the right to represent the party in the November general election.

Negative mailers have turned some contests ugly. Independent political committees have poured money into some races, with much of that money benefiting moderates. Some of the races have generated complaints with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Here are a few of the contested races between conservative incumbents and moderate challengers:

  • In Billings, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov is hoping to win re-election over John Bedford.
  • In Sidney, Joel Krautter is trying to unseat Rep. Scott Staffanson, whose vote against last year's infrastructure bill became a key campaign issue.
  • Sen. Jennifer Fielder is seeking to continue representing her northwestern Montana district against a challenge by Glen Ferren.
  • In Bozeman, Rep. Art Wittich is seeking re-election after a jury in April found that he took illegal corporate campaign money in 2010.

Democrats have primary contests of their own, but none have generated the same kind of heat as some GOP matchups. Only 14 matchups in the House and Senate feature Democrats going head to head.

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