Conservative priorities predominate at the Montana GOP convention
Hardline conservatives and moderate Republicans continued their longstanding clash at the Montana GOP convention in Billings over the weekend. Here's a breakdown of who holds power in the party, and what the GOP’s priorities are ahead of the 2023 legislative session.
Moderates vs. conservatives
The classic Montana Republican division played out at the 2022 convention with a successful push by Rep. Derek Skees, a conservative lawmaker from the Flathead, to pass a motion formalizing a type of grading system for the party.
The motion asks Republican caucuses during the 2023 session to identify "party bills," explains Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar. "And then, based on how lawmakers vote on those bills, they'll be rated on how conservative or not conservative they are, and that information will be made public."
Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Standing Rules Committee for the party, said this resolution epitomizes a longstanding debate among Montana Republicans.
"Is a responsibility of the legislator to represent the party, or is it to represent the voters of the district?" he said.
It was clear at the convention that the hardline conservative faction of the party carries more weight than moderate — and that was the case when it came to election security, Yellowstone Public Radio's Ellis Juhlin said.
"There was a lot of discussion about election integrity with many members of the party raising concerns about the validity of election results in Montana," Juhlin explained. "Several representatives voiced their fears about the communication capabilities of machines should they be connected to the Internet. There was general support for mechanical and hand-counting votes to ensure validity and maintain election integrity."
The split between hardline conservatives and moderates on the issue became clear when Rep. David Bedey of Hamilton was booed for saying there is reason to be concerned about election security, but not in Montana.
False claims of voter fraud impacting the outcome of the 2020 presidential election have been repeatedly debunked by courts and state election officials.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, it's no surprise that abortion came up at the convention.
The party has long included in its platform that natural life begins at conception — but over the weekend, members strengthened that anti-abortion sentiment, adopting a plank that supports a complete ban on elective abortions.
Rep. David Bedey brought an amendment that would have made an exception for abortion in cases of rape, incest or an imminent health threat to a pregnant person, but the amendment failed.
Rep. Jedediah Hinkle of Belgrade didn't want to include any exceptions to the ban.
"What makes this language even harder for me is in the case of rape and incest, because I do not believe that the baby should be responsible for the sins of another person," he said.
Several restrictive anti-abortion policies passed in the last legislative session are now tied up in court. Even after the overturn of Roe, abortion remains legal in Montana, and it's protected by a state Supreme Court precedent that essentially says Montana's constitutional right to privacy protects abortion.
The Natural Resource Committee added to the party platform some language about state-level management of public lands and resource industries, reports Ellis Juhlin.
"There were a large number of representatives who were supportive of developing energy and mineral resources on federal, state and private lands, and there was general opposition to the federalization of these resources," she said. "But the party is supportive of international companies."
There was also a conversation about maintaining and increasing access to Montana's federal lands. And along with this came support for releasing eight Wilderness Study Areas, similar to legislation Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has brought up at the federal level.
The party also added statements about their opposition to the "war on fossil fuels" as well as the Iranian nuclear deal.
Natural Resource Committee members were careful to clarify that the party is not supportive of the term "environmental justice." Here's what Ed Regan, the plank committee chair, said about that.
"We oppose decision-making based upon environmental justice, which is a new catch phrase of the left that includes race and gender and urban forestry, deprived communities, whatever they want it to mean," said plank committee chair Ed Regan.
Overall, state autonomy remains at the forefront of the GOP's platform.