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Soul patrol

Republican primaries provide Democrats an opening

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Last week, incumbent Montana Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R–Bozeman, surprised political wags like myself by filing his candidacy for House District 68 in Belgrade. Wittich said he wanted to be "where the action is," but I cannot help but note that he also would have faced primary challengers had he run for either of Bozeman's Senate seats.

No other candidate from his party filed for HD 68. By running as the sole Republican in Belgrade's very red house district, Wittich has pretty much guaranteed himself a trip back to Helena.

Originally, back in June, he filed for SD 35Scott Sales's seat, which is not part of the 2014 election. Wittich says it was a mistake. He was able to correct it at the last minute, after almost all other candidates had filed. By mistakenly filing for an election that didn't exist, the Senate majority leader got to choose a district where he could get through the Republican primary unopposed.

His lucky accident reflects a broader phenomenon in the Montana GOP this year. Republican primary nominations will be contested in 40 districts across the state in 2014, largely as a result of self-declared "responsible" Republicans' effort to find moderate challengers to very conservative incumbents. Lauren Caldwell, director of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, called it a "battle for the soul of the Republican Party."

You can almost hear her smiling when you read it. In a state whose legislative branch has been dominated by one party for decades, Republican infighting is about the best news Democrats could hear. The only thing better might be some kind of coherent strategy from their own party.

Before we go any further, I should admit that I was once what midwesterners call a yellow dog Democrat—meaning I would vote for a yellow dog if it appeared on the ballot with a (D) next to its name. I gave up my party affiliation for the champagne and albacore tuna lifestyle of the professional journalist, but at one time I held liberal views.

A lot of conservative ideas interest and even agree with me in theory, but in practice I can't get behind most Republican candidates. That's especially true in Montana, where Tea Party conservatives wield undue influence over the party.

PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

In the 2013 session, for example, Republicans voted unanimously to reject Medicaid expansion—a move that cost the state $6 billion in federal funding and kept 70,000 uninsured Montanans from getting health coverage. That same summer, Republicans in Helena proposed bills to nullify a federal ban on assault weapons that didn't exist, to require FBI agents to get permission from local sheriffs before serving federal warrants, and to pay state legislators in gold coins.

As much as they make easy work for a political columnist, such policies make for poor state government. They're why self-identified "business" Republicans have worked so hard to get moderates into the 2014 races. They want voters in red districts to have a choice between candidates who will "help the purge along"Wittich actually said that in a 2012 email about conflict with moderates—and more traditional Republicans.

Again, that's great news for Montanans who would like to see a functional state government in 2015. I am disappointed to see the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee crowing about it in the newspaper, though.

You know what would be better than two factions in the Montana Republican Party? Two parties in Montana politics. If Tea Party ideologues are hurting Montana—and they are—Democratic leaders should look to their own party for change.

Conventional wisdom says that's impossible. There are districts in Montana where more than 70 percent of voters are registered Republicans, districts that haven't sent a Democrat to Helena in generations. But those traditionally Republican districts are exactly the places where the Tea Party has left traditional Republicans behind.

Voters in Belgrade may not like Obamacare, but approximately 17 percent of them don't have health insurance. The Republican Party did not serve them in 2013, when it rejected free Medicaid on their behalf. Montana Democratic leaders would be wise to go after that 17 percent in 2014, rather than hoping another Republican comes along to split the vote.

Would that mean moving the platform further to the right? Almost certainly. But if there are districts in Montana so conservative that no Democrat could hope to win there, maybe Montana Democrats should moderate their approach. We call our system of government "representative" for a reason.

The yellow dog should learn some new tricks. This year's primary season shows that there is an appetite for moderation in state politics, and both parties would be wise to feed it.

Last week, Wittich said that the 2014 election will give voters a chance to decide "if they want a two-party system or a modified one-party system." His preference is obvious, but I don't think he's in the majority. Voters in Montana want a second political party, and Democrats should try being it.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and dogs at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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