In the days leading up to Montana's June 12 GOP convention, news outlets described state chairman candidate Will Deschamps as more moderate than his opponent, Rick Breckenridge of Proctor. The label may have been the result of Breckenridge's refusal to cater to moderate members of his party, or perhaps a result of Deschamps' address—the current property manager and former three-time candidate for the state House resides in Missoula, considered enemy territory to most Republicans.
"We are looked at askance from the other side of the state," admits Deschamps, who ended up winning the chairmanship by an undisclosed margin. "But I tell them not to color me by where I live, but by what I believe."
What Deschamps believes echoes the standard GOP party lines. He believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. He says neither he nor his party have ever wavered on abortion. He defends the war in Iraq. Overall, he shies away from the label of a moderate, instead choosing to talk about his vision of an inclusive Republican Party. More than anything, he stresses that there will be no major changes to the party's platform.
"Republicans are going to stick by their core values," he says, "which are lower taxes, more personal responsibility, family values. Those things have always been part of our base. I don't think those issues will change at all."
For Deschamps, who previously served as chairman of the Missoula County Republicans, the new position represents an unusual challenge. He recognizes that the party will have trouble making any headway in his hometown, despite, he says, the fact that Missoula County voted predominantly Republican 50 years ago.
What's changed, according to Deschamps, is the proliferation of nonprofits and organizations that rely on state and federal funding. Those organizations' lifelines make traditional conservative values—smaller government, lower taxes, increased personal responsibility—a hard sell. In fact, Deschamps guesses that 60 percent of the people who answer the door in Missoula work for the government, the University of Montana or a nonprofit.
"When a candidate says, 'I want to cut government,' why would they listen to you?" he asks.
Despite the uphill climb, Deschamps thinks his party can craft a winning message. He talks about how government can be smaller and still maintain social services, and how supporting small business allows a community to build on its own. Plus, he notes that Montana Republicans aren't facing the same crisis as other states. He believes the rift in the national party between moderates and hard-line conservatives has largely skipped Montana.
"The last election cycle," he says, "we were able to stave off [the Democrats] in the House and gain some seats in the Senate. I think we were one of three states in the United States that did that after the Obama revolution."
In the wake of that gain, he hopes to stay the course.
"We want to try to continue the programs that began two years ago to gain some traction here in the state," he says.
Dennis McDonald, Deschamps' counterpart at the Montana Democratic Party, jumps at the opportunity to criticize that strategy.
"The Republicans are a party without
a message," says McDonald, who is also challenging Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2010 for the state's lone congressional seat. "Here in Montana, right now they're in disarray."
Deschamps has heard that criticism before and doesn't buy it. He says both parties have been written off in the past as being disorganized, largely to no effect.
"The Republican Party, nationally, is thought to be in that position now," he says, "and I think it will come back as a stronger party. We have some strong leadership at the top with Chairman [Michael] Steele. He is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual with lots of fresh ideas and people are getting on board. I'll be the last one to think the party is done."
Deschamps remains optimistic because he believes he can draw young Republicans back to the party and retain moderates and hard-liners alike. One person interested to hear from the new chairman is Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger. The state GOP essentially excommunicated Bohlinger when he accepted Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's invitation to be his running mate in 2004, but Bohlinger remains a registered Republican. He didn't attend the state GOP convention because he was out of town—he's not sure he'd have been allowed in anyway—but says he's interested to talk with Deschamps.
"I would hope," Bohlinger says, "that he's more moderate than what the leadership has been." The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>