Montana Republicans Look for Ideology, Not Just Electability, in 2012

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By this time next year the fall campaign will be in full swing as the likely Republican nominee will have emerged from the primaries to take on President Obama. It is also almost exactly a year from the day that Montana, one of the last states to vote in the primaries, will go to polls. Despite its largely ceremonial role in the nomination fight, that has not diminished interest in the still-growing list of GOP contenders.

And it has not eased concerns among conservative activists that the Republican Party will put perceived “electability” over the core principles of the party – and here that means reducing the size, scope and cost of government and advocating a more states’ rights vision of the federal government.

Republicans here seem agreed on those goals, but nowhere near agreement on the man or woman best positioned to champion them.

“When I talk to Republicans I hear all the names of all the people who are running or are close to running. Every major candidate has support here,” Bowen Greenwood, the state party’s executive director, said.

2008: Never Forget

Although there is not agreement on who should be the standard-bearer, many Republicans shared the same concern; the party must learn from the losses of 2008 and victories of 2010.

“There has been a shift in the Republican Party since 2008. The Republican Party of 2010-2012 cares more about standing for principled conservativism,” Greenwood said this week. “In 2008 we were having a terrible time, President Bush was incredibly unpopular and the party was solely focused on putting together a coalition to win. I think we learned a lot from that. You can’t win without believing.”

Greenwood’s sentiments are echoed in interviews with other Republican activists in the state who saw the victory of President Obama less as a Democratic success than as a loss of direction within the Republican Party.

The reaction is particularly true in parts of the state where the tea party has a stronger presence. Here in Montana, as we have reported before, the tea party has taken strongest root in the Monied Burbs, Tractor Country and some of the Boom Town counties in the state.

These counties, especially in the western part of the state, have been the scene of growing tea party efforts as well as some spats within the party, like one recent clash over who exactly should be running one county party.

Montanan Republicans find uneasy unity

Although these areas fall into a couple different categories within the Patchwork Nation framework, they have some key things in common, according to University of Montana Professor Christopher Muste.

“In these areas we have seen more RINO [Republican In Name Only] fights about which candidate is the real Republican,” Muste said, adding that these clashes “tend to be in areas where there has been fairly large growth in the number of retirees and other people moving to the area.”

Greenwood acknowledged that there are some tensions between these new activists – whom he described as “strongly ideologically motivated voters who make up the tea parties”-- and more establishment Republicans. It is a division that shows up in the party when one name comes up – former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

The stance on a possible campaign by Palin, whose Magical Mystery Tour bus caravan has been traversing the east coast last week, is a litmus test for the divisions in this state.

“My background is in working with deeply conservative groups and when I talk to them many are hoping for a Sarah Palin candidacy. Now I work in Helena with a lot of what would be called by some establishment Republicans and I hear a lot of them hoping she doesn’t run,” Greenwood said. “I think a lot of people look at her and see what the party ought to be – whether she runs or not.”

Republicans here said that the bulk of her support comes from areas like Boom Town Ravalli County and Monied Burb Flathead County that Greenwood and Muste both cited as the epicenter of the tea parties.

But beyond the Palin question, the Montana GOP is still making up its mind about the candidates. In talking with GOP voters you find supporters of all the major candidates who have announced or are considering announcing. 

Looking forward, but to what?

Underlying the nominee selection is a more fundamental question about the direction of the party. Greenwood, and tea party activists in Flathead and Lake Counties, have stressed that the GOP lost its way in 2008 by focusing too much on wanting to win and not what they believed. Greenwood goes so far as to say, “the establishment lost everything in 2008.”

This perception may be the major challenge facing the GOP, according to Muste.

“If that’s why they lost in 2008, I would ask them why did they win in 2000 when President Bush ran a very centrist campaign?” Muste asked.

Still conservative activism is not a new thing in Montana, he added, saying that tea party-style groups had been operating in the state since around 2004. In the years since those groups organized, the GOP here has worked to reach out to them, Greenwood said.

“We have worked to be a party that is more open to those voices… I hesitate to use the word big tent because that has come to mean a watering down of values and that is not what we are talking about,” he said. “We are saying if you believe in limited government, you are welcome here. If you want smaller government and lower taxes, you are welcome here.”

But harnessing the power of these groups has been difficult. The Montana GOP is still working to bridge the gaps within its ranks between the movement members, these often newer residents from western Montana’s Boom Towns and Monied Burbs and the more mainstream, but still conservative, members from eastern Montana.

“There doesn’t look like there has been any resolution of these tensions,” Muste said. “There really is a greater danger that the Republicans are going to have a more divisive pre-primary and early primary phase than ever before.”

The likelihood that it will be divisive enough for the Republicans of Montana to have their vote decide the 2012 primary is infinitesimal, but the multiple wings of this state’s GOP are still pushing for a candidate to believe in, not just vote for.

Lee Banville is a contributing editor to Patchwork Nation and as assistant professor at The University of Montana.