For the better part of the past decade, Montana Republicans have enjoyed comfortable majorities in the state Legislature. Despite those majorities (or maybe because of them), GOP caucuses in the House and Senate have spent much of the past 10 years engaged in a bitter, and oftentimes very public, intra-party feud.
The fratricide started with the ugly 2007 session, which ended that April with lawmakers failing to pass a state budget, the only task the state constitution requires of them.
Prior to the start of the May 2007 special session to finish the budget work, a handful of self-described “solutions-oriented” Republicans — led by a little-known sophomore representative from Conrad named Llew Jones — met with then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s staff at a cabin near Helena, where they hammered out a budget compromise.
Schweitzer, with the help of the so-called Log Cabin Republicans, secured the votes the governor needed in the Republican-controlled House to pass his budget deal, and only then did he call legislators to return to the Capitol. The outcome of the 2007 special session was all but certain before it even started.
When the dust settled after that five-day special session, Schweitzer claimed victory with most of his major budget proposals intact, and many Republicans left Helena bitter, licking their wounds and looking inward for a solution to their problem on the second floor.
Some Republicans decided the solution was to purge their party of fellow Republicans who were willing to negotiate with the Democrat upstairs, and over the course of the next 10 years a rift in the Montana GOP grew wide and deep as those on the hard-right pursued conservative purity in the Legislature.
Today, in the wake of this year’s special session to plug a $227 million hole in the state budget, there are now signs that the long-standing divide in the Montana GOP may be on the mend. Term limits are about to force many of the current crop of GOP leaders out of office, so this newfound spirit of cooperation may be tenuous. But for now, Republican legislators who were once staunch policy and electoral rivals appear to have laid down their arms.
A noteworthy piece of evidence of this fragile truce lies in the simple fact that majority Republicans in the House and Senate agreed with each other enough to pass a series of measures to address the state’s budget crisis without forcing Gov. Steve Bullock to make deep cuts to state government programs and agencies. And they did it in two days.
“I think you did see what I would call rapprochements between the moderate end of the Republican spectrum and the conservative end of the Republican spectrum,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann, of Billings.
Essmann was at the red-hot center of GOP infighting as president of the Senate in 2013. He presided over a session that saw Republican squabbling boil over onto the Senate floor after a series of leaked emails clearly defined the fissures within the caucus. In those emails, Essmann, then-Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, and other Republican Senate leaders discussed plans to “purge” more moderate Republicans from the party in an effort to impose “agenda control” on the Legislature.
“The initial plan was they were going to purge the world of whoever they didn’t think was a ‘true conservative,’” said Llew Jones, now a state senator from Conrad. “There was no respect for the Main Street business Republicans in 2013.”
Jones is a self-described “solutions-oriented” lawmaker with a reputation as the Legislature’s shrewdest dealmaker. Jones doesn’t like being referred to as “moderate” — he thinks it implies he’s not “conservative.”
“The Main Street business Republican tends to be a pretty conservative individual, spending-wise, tax-wise, even somewhat lifestyle-wise,” Jones said. “But the very skill set that allows them to run successful businesses allows them to solve problems. The crew that works on solving problems at the Legislature are the ones who get the work done. They aren’t extremely ideological, but they do get the work done. Those voices were largely ignored, or told, ‘Shut up, you don’t have a place in the party.’”
Getting work done means sometimes working with Democrats and other people who don’t agree with you, Jones said. It requires compromise.
As a sophomore representative in 2007, Jones was at the center of the group of Republicans who defied the conservative House leadership and hashed out a budget deal with Schweitzer.
As lawmakers packed up their desks at the end of the 2007 session, knowing they would soon have to return to finish the job, Jones approached the Republican chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Jones wanted to know what the plan was for solving the budget crisis.
“He looked at me and said, ‘chaos,’” Jones said.
Jones was exasperated at what the top Republican on the most powerful budget committee had in mind for the inevitable special session: continued disruption and dysfunction — to the point that Montanans might lose faith in their government’s ability to function.
“I was unwilling to accept that,” Jones said. “Chaos is not a plan. We had to find a solution.”
That has made Jones, and the other Republican lawmakers who share his willingness to compromise, targets of conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Western Traditions Partnership, the Montana Family Foundation and other so-called dark money groups that don’t disclose their donors.
The leak of the Senate leadership emails in 2013 gave the public its clearest view to date of the breadth and depth of the divide within the party, and it clearly drew the lines of division. What was once a private battle conducted behind closed doors emerged into open political warfare. On the House and Senate floors, Republicans fought each other over campaign disclosure laws, education funding, Medicaid expansion, water compacts and the state budget, among other issues.
After the 2013 session ended, members of the various GOP factions went to work supporting competing political action committees, raising and spending money against each other in an effort to defeat fellow incumbent Republican legislators in primary elections.
For example, in the weeks leading up to the June 2014 Republican primary, Great Falls-based Montanans for Responsible Leadership, a political action committee allied with the moderate faction, spent $65,000 on direct mail targeting hard-line conservative candidates in 18 legislative races.
The Conservative Majority PAC, run by Essmann, then president of the Senate, spent $12,500 targeting lawmakers deemed “too liberal.”
Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — was thoroughly out the window.
“2007 was the end of gentleman politics in Montana and the beginning of the dark times,” said Rob Cook, R-Conrad.
Cook, who won Jones’ open House seat in 2011, is now a battle-hardened veteran of the GOP civil war, having led the “responsible Republican” resistance in the House in 2013. Cook has also been on the receiving end of dozens of primary election attack mailers funded by outside political groups, and he has defended his seat against primary candidates recruited by fellow Republican lawmakers.
“From ’07 until ’17, it was a time of fratricide and turmoil,” Cook said. “And then, in 2017, you have what might look like the beginning of a new dawn in Republican politics.”
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, elected to his first term in 2012, has never had a Legislature friendly to his agenda. Even so, he has accomplished a handful of significant policy victories in the face of stiff Republican opposition, including Medicaid expansion, passage of a major campaign finance disclosure law and the ratification of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai water compact, to name a few.
Bullock achieved these policy wins, in part, by working out deals with a handful of House and Senate Republicans who were willing to negotiate with him and minority Democrats.
For a law to pass in Montana, at least 26 senators and 51 representatives have to vote for it on the floor. With the large GOP caucuses in the House and Senate divided into ideological factions, Republicans struggled to get even 51 votes of their own on major legislation.
Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, was the minority leader in the House in the early years of the Republican breakdown. He remembers how challenging it was for Republican leaders to corral their caucuses following the 2010 Tea Party wave that swept Libertarian and hard-right lawmakers into legislatures throughout the nation.
“There were 68 Republicans in the House, but there were three different groups,” Sesso said of Montana’s 2011 session.
There were “alt-right guys” who came in on the Tea Party wave, and there were libertarian-leaning Republicans, Sesso said.
“In the middle were conservative Republicans you could talk to. They didn’t go really ideological all the time,” Sesso said.
Sesso was leading the 32 minority Democrats who, if they stuck together, were the largest single caucus in the room, given the divisions among Republicans. Sesso said he had a good working relationship with then-Speaker of the House Mike Milburn, R-Cascade. Between them, they figured out how to negotiate deals and move major legislation forward in a deeply divided House.
“We were able to get our 32 and the 20 [Republicans] who really wanted to get some stuff done, with the cooperation of Milburn, who was a pragmatic guy,” Sesso recalled.
Sesso and nearly everyone else interviewed for this story described how term limits — which went into effect in 1993 — have limited legislators’ ability to build good relationships with fellow lawmakers, both within their own party and across the aisle. Those relationships, which take time to form, are key to honest negotiation and compromise in the Legislature.
Culbertson Republican Austin Knudsen, the current speaker of the House, arrived on the 2010 Tea Party wave. Knudsen, who served two terms as speaker, is termed out of the House next year. He said building good relationships and trust can be difficult when lawmakers see each other for only 90 days every two years.
“You learn who you can trust, and you build those relationships whether you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Knudsen said. “Term limits have absolutely killed us that way.”
Cook said the nature of the House, which sees about 40 percent lawmaker turnover each session, makes building relationships difficult, and compromise even more challenging.
“New legislators arrive in Helena still heavily influenced by the stresses inherent in winning both a primary and a general election. The instrument of choice for winning these elections is the sound bite,” Cook said.
Sound bites are useful tools for framing broad, general philosophies, but they are deficient in defining how things actually get done, Cook said. The absence, during the election process, of meaningful discussion about how to turn ideology into law is what leads to intra-party feuding, Cook said.
“Ideologically, Republicans are not vastly different. We all subscribe to a general philosophy of lower taxes, limited government and minimal necessary regulation,” Cook said. “Where we are different, however, is in our personal interpretation of the broader tenets of this ideology, and in our ability to formulate and execute a legislative solution that comports with our values and the values of our constituents.”
Knudsen acknowledged the disconnect between the election process and policy making that most newly elected representatives experience.
“In ’10, we came in 68-strong in the House, and those of us who just got there thought, ‘We’re going to rule the world!’” Knudsen recalled. “You come in with a chip on your shoulder, super conservative and no inkling about how the process actually works.”
By most accounts there was very little communication between hard-liners and moderates in the GOP caucus during the 2013 and 2015 sessions. Knudsen said he shoulders some of that blame.
“I have to wear that one. I was the speaker,” Knudsen said.
As the 2017 session approached, Knudsen and Majority Leader Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, worked out an informal agreement with the center-right faction ensuring a certain number of the moderates’ priority bills would make it to the House floor for debate.
According to news reports, the deal was an effort to heal the rift in the caucus.
“We had a meeting where we said we wanted to bury the hatchet,” Knudsen told MTN political reporter Mike Dennison ahead of the 2017 session.
“For me, it’s all about bringing the [Republican] caucus together,” Ehli added.
The move seems to have paid off. By all accounts, GOP infighting in 2017 was minimal compared to previous sessions.
“You know, after three sessions in leadership, you learn,” Knudsen said.
Nobody knew quite what to expect heading into the Nov. 14 special session.
A $227 million budget shortfall loomed over the state, and Bullock had been unable to come to an agreement with Republicans on how to backfill it. Without a deal in place, Bullock on Nov. 6 officially called legislators back to Helena.
In the halls of the Capitol and in nearby restaurants and coffee shops, there seemed to be a consensus view that calling a special session without a water-tight deal already in place was risky.
“I think it is going to be a disaster,” one House Democrat confided to me in a text message in the days leading up to the special session, adding that Bullock “probably didn’t have a choice.”
The last time a governor called the Legislature back to Helena to deal with a budget mess was in 2007. That was a watershed moment for legislative Republicans, and drove a deep and lasting wedge between the conservative and more moderate wings of the party. The “Log Cabin” deal lit the fuse on a civil war that resulted in ugly primary campaigns, infamous “dark money”-funded attack mailers and backbiting that would define the party for the next decade.
Scott Sales was the Republican House speaker during the 2007 legislative session. He’s now president of the Senate.
Sales, a staunch conservative, was opposed to the budget deal that Jones and other House Republicans negotiated with Schweitzer in 2007, but he said he didn’t get involved in the in-fighting.
“I sat out for ’11, and then I came back for what was the disastrous ’13 session,” Sales recalled in a recent interview.
Sales, who was elected to the Senate in 2012, sat behind Majority Leader Art Wittich on the Senate floor and had a front-row view of the dysfunction that defined the 2013 session.
“It was a train wreck,” Sales said. “The decorum was extremely poor. I had never seen anything like it.”
Sales said Republican primary battles in the two elections following the 2007 session had damaged the party and sown seeds of distrust among caucus members.
“There had been a lot of primarying between the more moderate factions trying to get rid of conservatives, and the conservatives to get rid of the moderates,” Sales said. “I looked at those results, and the incumbency trumped 99 percent of the time. Moderates lost one incumbent member of their coalition, and the conservatives lost one of theirs. But it wasn’t working.”
Sales said that in the end, the only thing Republican in-fighting seemed to bring about was hard feelings.
Today, Essmann acknowledges that past efforts to unseat incumbent Republicans in primary races created a lot of “bad blood.” Essmann was president of a political action committee that campaigned against four incumbent Republicans in the 2014 primary election.
“The challenge for leadership going forward will be getting everyone to focus on what’s in everyone’s best mutual interest,” Essmann said. “Purity is pretty tough to achieve in a political setting. It’s impossible to achieve. Political settings are meant to drive compromise.”
Though Rob Cook doesn’t hold an official leadership position in the House, the Conrad Republican has served as the de facto leader of the center-right caucus in the House the past three legislative sessions. Cook has gone head to head with the more conservative faction of his party in the capitol and in the primary arena. Cook was a target of Essmann’s Conservative Majority PAC during the 2014 primary, and Cook gave money to PACs that worked to remove conservative incumbents.
Cook said he sees evidence that the intra-party warfare may be over.
“I think they are kind of tired of trying to beat us,” Cook said.
Cook said organized efforts by fellow Republicans to try to defeat incumbent GOP lawmakers may a thing of the past.
“I think that part of the Republican war may be on the shelf,” Cook said. “You can’t control somebody popping up in a race, but you can control the recruiting side. I don’t know that there’s going to be a lot of recruitments to run against incumbents.”
Four and a half years after the climax of 2013’s GOP infighting, many of the lawmakers who were once on opposite sides of that bitter divide gathered at Helena’s Jorgenson’s Inn & Suites, a longtime encampment and watering hole for GOP lawmakers.
Essmann and Cook, who just a few years earlier had openly attacked each other in newspapers and primary campaigns, talked strategy for the 2017 special session that was about to get under way.
Republican legislative leaders new and old, fire-hardened veterans of the intra-party feud, and relative newcomers alike, all broke bread, told jokes and speculated about the special session’s outcome.
Everyone seemed to be on board with the talking points. If there was disagreement over the major points, it wasn’t voiced in my presence. If you hadn’t witnessed the bitterness that prevailed among many of these lawmakers during the past decade, you might never know it had existed at all.
“Who would have thought all it would take to unite Republicans is for Bullock to call us back for a special session?” joked one GOP lawmaker, to chuckles and nods from his comrades.
When the session ended a few days later, most Republicans agreed they’d done a good job.
“This little special session was really gratifying for me, as someone who has been in leadership over the last 10 years,” Sales said. “I really felt [that] as Republicans, we really worked well together, considered each other’s thoughts, what we wanted to get accomplished. There was a lot of coordination and compromise.”
Knudsen said he was “ecstatic” over the outcome of the two-day special session.
“It’s just because we stuck together as Republicans,” Knudsen said. “Quite honestly, it’s something I have not seen in the four sessions I’ve been up there.”
One apparent reason for the newfound spirit of cooperation among Republicans is that many of the key players have been around a while.
Sales’ and Sesso’s Senate terms extend to 2020. Jones is termed out of the Senate in 2018, but plans to run for his old House seat. Knudsen and Cook are both termed out of the House in 2018. Knudsen said he doesn’t plan to run for the Senate, and Cook is considering a run for the Public Service Commission. Knudsen and Cook, having served four terms in the House, have now known and served with each other for most the last eight years.
Jones, Sales, and Sesso have served together in the House and Senate for most of the past 12 years. A decade ago, these lawmakers didn’t have the experience or relationships they have today. Now, even though they may not agree on many issues, they at least know they can trust one another.
“The difference between this special session and past sessions [is that] the Republican leadership was actually involved when we had to disseminate information,” Cook said. “They actually knew what was going on. I think we bothered to reach out, so that we wouldn’t be feuding, and they came to the table. They accepted the offer. In the past, it had been so fractious they wouldn’t have done that.”
Knudsen said that, starting in the 2017 session, House Republicans learned that dealing with fellow Republicans, rather than taking a hard line against more moderate members of the caucus, creates a path forward.
“We learned we could all get together here and move as Republicans, and not move as conservative Republicans versus moderate Republicans.” Jones said one final reason that various Republican factions have started to treat each other with more respect is that they’ve finally gotten to know each other better.
“I’m always handy with numbers and spreadsheets and making stuff balance, but early on I hadn’t spent the time to understand their stories,” Jones said. “The more you can tell each other’s story, the easier it is to work with each other.”
John Adams is the founding editor of The Montana Free Press, where this story was first published.