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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Loyalty, abortion and immigration take center stage at state GOP Convention

Montana GOP Convention Chair Jeff Essmann moderates while Republican delegates debate changes to the Montana GOP platform on June 29, 2024.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana GOP Convention Chair Jeff Essmann moderates while Republican delegates debate changes to the Montana GOP platform on June 29, 2024.

Montana Republicans met in Billings over the weekend to update their party’s platform. This is the document that outlines what the party stands for and its policy priorities. Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar was at the event and joined host Austin Amestoy to talk about the Republicans' debate on election law, immigration, abortion and party loyalty.

Austin Amestoy: Shaylee, what is the importance of these party platform conventions?

Shaylee Ragar: The platform helps the party define itself. Every two years party members gather to vote on their guiding principles.

Some planks of the platform haven’t changed in years, while others are updated as new issues come to the forefront.

Shaylee Ragar: The document also informs what party members bring to the state Legislature. Republicans hold all statewide offices in Montana, and had a supermajority last legislative session. So they have a lot of power to carry out their platform.

“I think it’s kind of a guide to what you can expect for legislation. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to pass. Or that all members of the Republican Party are going to agree on that,” said Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick.

Shaylee Ragar: Press were only allowed to watch certain portions of the convention, so I can’t speak to what happened behind closed doors. We didn’t get to watch the initial debates on each plank, but we watched the final votes happen.

And even in those final votes there are sometimes disagreements.

Austin Amestoy: Like what?

Shaylee Ragar: Some members accuse others of not being Republican enough.

Former state Rep. Brad Tschida from Missoula gave a speech at the end of the convention, asking those who don’t always agree with the party or its platform to remove the "R" from behind their name.

“We need to be always faithful. Our platform is our Bible, it is our game plan, it is our constitution,” said Tschida.

Shaylee Ragar: The platform asks the state GOP to grade all Republican legislators on how well they followed the party line after the next legislative session.

Austin Amestoy: Could those looming reports change how legislators vote?

Shaylee Ragar: It could. But in reality, demands for party unity have never stopped some from breaking away on certain votes.

For example, at the convention, Rep. David Bedey of Hamilton voiced his opposition to a plank supporting a total ban on abortion — without exceptions. He said he believes that stance is out of step with how most Republicans and Montanans feel, and that it’s actually setting back the anti-abortion movement.

“It’s energizing the effort to make abortion a constitutional right. It’s unfortunate the plank committee did not take this issue up,” said Bedey.

But the party support for a total ban stayed as is.

Austin Amestoy: Were there any other topics that revealed factions?

Shaylee Ragar: There was a pretty long debate over a plank opposing relocating bison in Montana. Some ranchers have pushed back against allowing herds outside of Yellowstone National Park, saying they pose a threat to livestock.

But Perri Jacobs, a candidate for Senate District 16, which includes some of the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations, proposed allowing for bison transfers to quarantine facilities on reservations. She said she doesn’t want the plank to alienate Native American voters, who see managing bison on their homelands as culturally and economically important.

“I do not support this plank with this statement in it,” said Jacobs

Shaylee Ragar: Rep. Ed Butcher of Winifred rebuked that idea.

“Ranchers in Montana are having a big enough problem dealing with this whole idiot bison situation just because they’re trying to cater to reservations that want to play around with their sacred animals,” said Butcher.

Austin Amestoy: Shaylee, you said the party updates its views when new issues come to the forefront — what were those issues this year?

Shaylee Ragar: Definitely. Immigration was a big one.

The GOP platform now calls for deporting undocumented immigrants, penalties for businesses that hire undocumented immigrants and penalties for businesses or nonprofits that transport or exploit immigrants, including criminal charges for human trafficking.

Austin Amestoy: What about other current events?

Shaylee Ragar: The party voted to officially oppose Ranked Choice Voting and other similar election systems, which is a nod to a proposed constitutional initiative that would create an open primary system in Montana.

The party platform also now makes several references to the judicial branch and Republicans’ frustration with what they believe to be a biased judiciary. They made an amendment to one line to eliminate the word “equal” in describing the three branches of the government. Lisa Bennett of Carbon County said the Legislature is inherently more powerful than the judiciary.

“The judicial branch is not an equal branch, it is the weakest branch. The legislative branch is the strongest branch, it can impeach the other two,” said Bennett.

"I’ll reiterate, these are guiding principles — the platform is an aspirational document and not all of these ideas will come to fruition."

Austin Amestoy: Shaylee, do Democrats have the same kind of convention?

Shaylee Ragar: They do, and normally we cover it. But the press did not get advanced notice this year, so I didn’t make it to their convention in early June. According to the Montana Democratic Party, a substantive change they made was to add a plank just for housing to signify their commitment to addressing the housing shortage.

Austin Amestoy: Shaylee, thanks for your reporting.

Shaylee Ragar: No problem.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or shaylee.ragar@mso.umt.edu.  
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