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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Conservative priorities predominate at the Montana GOP convention

Montana GOP Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt oversees debate on party planks the state convention in Billings, July 17, 2022.
Shaylee Ragar
/
Montana GOP Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt oversees debate on party planks the state convention in Billings, July 17, 2022.

Hardline conservatives and moderate Republicans continued their longstanding clash at the Montana GOP convention in Billings over the weekend. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin and Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar break down who holds power and what the GOP’s priorities are ahead of the 2023 legislative session.

Moderates vs. Conservatives

Ellis Juhlin So Shaylee, we saw a classic Montana Republican division at the convention. And how did this play out?

Shaylee Ragar Yeah, that divide is a staple in Montana politics. Hardline conservatives and moderates just don't always see eye to eye, and there's been a push for some time by those on the far right to publicly identify moderates as moderates. Representative Derek Skees, a Republican from the Flathead, has long pushed for this kind of ID system by, by naming moderates as moderates. And he finally succeeded in that goal over the convention. He successfully passed a motion that essentially formalizes a grading system for Republicans. It asks Republican caucuses at the next legislative session in 2023 to identify 'party bills.' And then based on how lawmakers vote on those bills, they'll be rated on how conservative or not conservative they are and that information will be made public.

Jeff Essmann is chairman of the Standing Rules Committee for the Party, and he said this resolution epitomizes a longstanding debate among Montana Republicans.

"... Between, is a responsibility of the legislator to represent the party, or is it to represent the voters of the district?"

Election security

Shaylee Ragar It was clear pretty quickly that the hardline conservative faction of the party carries more weight than moderates. Wouldn't you say that was the case when it came to election security, Ellis?

Ellis Juhlin Absolutely. There was a lot of discussion about election integrity with many members of the party raising concerns about the validity of election results in Montana. Several representatives voiced their fears about the communication capabilities of machines should they be connected to the Internet. There was general support for mechanical and hand-counting votes to ensure validity and maintain election integrity. But like you said previously, the split between hardline conservatives and moderates was really clear on this issue, too. And this couldn't have been more obvious than when Representative David Bedey from Hamilton was booed partway through his comments.

"I think there's plenty of reason to be concerned, but not in the state of Montana. Anyone who's looked carefully at ..." (Boos from the audience).

Ellis Juhlin False claims of voter fraud impacting the outcome of the 2020 presidential election have been debunked by courts and state election officials.

Abortion

So, Shaylee, we knew that Republicans would be talking about abortion at the convention, given that Roe has now been overturned. Where did the party land on that issue?

Shaylee Ragar Yeah, it's not surprising that abortion came up at the convention. Montana Republicans, like the national party, have long been anti-abortion. They pushed through several restrictive anti-abortion policies last legislative session. Those are tied up in court right now and in a post-Roe world, abortion remains legal in Montana, and it's protected by a Supreme Court precedent that essentially says Montana's constitutional right to privacy protects abortion.

But even so, Montana Republicans adopted a plank that supports a complete ban on elective abortions. That moderate representative who you just mentioned, David Bedey, brought an amendment that would have made an exception for abortion in cases of rape, incest or an imminent health threat to a pregnant person. But that amendment failed. Representative Jedediah Hinkle of Belgrade spoke against any exceptions to a ban.

"What makes this language even harder for me is in the case of rape and incest, because I do not believe that the baby should be responsible for the sins of another person." (Applause).

Natural resources

Shaylee Ragar Ellis, the Natural Resource Committee added quite a bit of language about state-level management of public lands and resource industries. Can you get into that?

Ellis Juhlin There were a large number of representatives who were supportive of developing energy and mineral resources on federal, state and private lands, and there was general opposition to the federalization of these resources. But the party is supportive of international companies.

Public lands

There was also a conversation about maintaining and increasing access to Montana's federal lands. And along with this came support for releasing eight Wilderness Study Areas, similar to legislation we have seen Senator Daines bring up at the federal level.

The party also decided to add statements about their opposition to the 'war on fossil fuels' as well as the Iranian nuclear deal.

"Environmental justice"

They were careful to clarify that the party is not supportive of the term "environmental justice." Here's what Ed Regan, the plank committee chair, said about that.

"We oppose decision-making based upon environmental justice, which is a new catch phrase of the left that includes race and gender and urban forestry, deprived communities, whatever they want it to mean."

Ellis Juhlin Overall, state autonomy remains at the forefront of the GOP's platform, and the natural resources plank reflected that.

With the platform finalized. Do you have any expectations for the 2023 legislative session?

Shaylee Ragar The convention definitely laid out the priorities Republicans have for the 2023 legislative session and pending elections this fall. The GOP is poised to win a supermajority in the Legislature that would solidify its power to pass or block any legislation Republicans want.

Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.