The ouroboros is an ancient symbol that depicts a snake swallowing its own tail. The Egyptians used it to evoke the beginning and end of time. In certain Hindu sects, it represented samsara, the cycle of life and death. And in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, the ouroboros foretold the Republican Party of Montana: infinite, eternal and relentlessly biting itself in the ass.
The snake struck again last week. On Tuesday, Republican Party attorney Jim Brown filed a motion to have Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion dismissed from its lawsuit to overturn Montana's law allowing any registered voter to participate in any party's primary. The motion cited a call Bennion made to GOP Executive Director Chris Shipp, in which Bennion allegedly asked how the party generates mailing lists and identifies its members.
"It's a problem because an attorney contacted a represented party," Brown told the Flathead Beacon. "It's certainly nothing personal."
Like his boss, Attorney General Tim Fox, Bennion is a Republican. Before he joined Fox's office in 2012, he was the government affairs director of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. He also served as a campaign director for former Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg. But despite these bona fides, he has aroused the suspicion of his partyat least the faction leading this lawsuit.
Bozeman attorney and state House candidate Matthew Monforton filed the suit last September on behalf of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee. He might have been inspired by the close primary between state Senate candidates Scott Boulanger and Pat Connell. After Connell won by a slim margin, Boulanger complained that Democrats had joined the Republican primary to vote for his more moderate opponent. The Central Committee subsequently refused to provide any financial support to Connell, who won anyway.
Two weeks ago, Sen. Connell was subpoenaed in the open-primary lawsuit and submitted voluntary responses to a series of questions from Monforton, as did former state Sen. Jim Shockley. Shockley told the Flathead Beacon the questions pertained to a letter urging primary voters who opposed the re-election of Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey to vote against Boulanger, who supported her candidacy. Stamey vanished shortly after losing that election, possibly because the state has fined her tens of thousands of dollars for neglecting her duties.
It's a complex narrative that runs backwards in time, from last week's conflict-of-interest motion, through Boulanger versus Connell, to the Ravalli County Commission's decision to appoint as treasurer a woman with no accounting experience and an assumed name. But at every turn lies the suspicion of one faction of the Republican Party that the people in the other faction are not actually Republicans. The snake keeps biting its own tail.
It's a potent image, because at this moment in Montana politics, the GOP seems eternal and all-encompassing. The reason Democrats might be voting for moderates in Republican primaries is that in places like Ravalli, the Republican nominee always wins. These hypothetical crossover Democrats are sitting down at the beginning of each election to choose which Republican candidate they like best.
Somehow, a large portion of the Montana GOP considers that a problem. Rather than rejoicing in the possibility that Democrats in Ravalli and other counties have operatively joined their party, conservative Republicans have become paranoid, obsessed with rooting out the moderates in their midst.
Those conservatives have mistaken an opportunity for a crisis. Moderates are drawing lifelong Democrats into the GOP. If you vote in a party's primary, and that party invariably wins your county in the fall, you are in that party. Sure, an influx of nominal Democrats might moderate the platform, but the Republican central committees are not in the business of writing platforms. They're in the business of winning elections.
Lately, though, a substantial portion of the GOP cares more about enforcing ideological purity. Convinced their moderates are secret Democrats, conservatives like Monforton and Art Wittich have set out to drive them from the party. The snake devours its own tail.
Here's a fun question: Once moderate candidates like Connell are drummed out of the Montana GOP and Democrats are kept from its primaries, where will they go? Probably, they will give up politics entirely and start bands. Maybe, though, they will look for some other political party—some long-slumbering alternative that flickers through the dreams of history.
The ouroboros symbolizes infinity, but it also symbolizes the balance of opposites: beginning and end, permanence and obliteration, nourishment and death. Republicans in Montana might consider that the opposite of Matthew Monforton is not Jon Bennion. There's a whole other party out there, and ejecting people from their own is not the way to beat it. The snake will never run out of appetite, but it might just run out of tail.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and the scarcity of tail at combatblog.net