On the surface, lawmakers in the 63rd Montana Legislature appear to be working to get along and to advance bills both parties can live with.
But below the surface, a simmering ideological battle is threatening to boil over onto the Senate floor.
The turmoil isn’t between Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature, and their Democratic counterparts. The most heated political power struggle under way at the Capitol right now is between the conservative and moderate factions within the GOP caucus.
It’s a power struggle that has played out in local legislative primary races. It is often bantered about in the halls of the Capitol and in the watering holes around Helena.
Emails recently obtained by the Tribune pull back the curtain and give the public a glimpse of the seething intra-party acrimony that has infected the Legislature’s most powerful body.
The documents show key members of the Senate Republican caucus, including members of the current leadership team, began plotting their power play as early as September of last year.
According to one former state senator who was defeated in a three-way Republican primary last June, conservative members of the Senate caucus began identifying allies and enemies and painting political targets as early as July 2011, just a few months after the session adjourned.
The emails and documents — which feature a lengthy discussion between Senate President Jeff Essmann of Billings, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman, Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge, Majority Whip Frederick “Eric” Moore of Miles City, Sen. Ed Walker of Billings and Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena — outline the strategy the conservative Republicans in the Senate caucus used to seize power from the 2011 leadership team in order to advance their policies in 2013.
The goal of the new conservative leadership team, as Essmann detailed in one email last September, was to advance a “long game strategy” that “involves changing the face of the Montana Supreme Court” so the high court “does not find a constitutional block to every conservative policy initiative and will give (Republicans) a better shot at redistricting in 10 years.”
“(Republican Redistricting Commissioner) Jon Bennion was able to draw a map with 63 safe Republican seats,” Essmann wrote on Sept. 13 in an email with the subject line “Agenda control.”
“If we can implement the long term strategy we will be in a position to actually elect a majority of conservatives in both bodies, adopt conservative legislation and have a court that will uphold it,” Essmann wrote.
- Essmann may provide ‘sharper edge’ as state Senate president (billingsgazette.com)
- Inexperienced legislators work to get up to speed for 2013 session (billingsgazette.com)
- Senate leadership fight turns friendly (krqe.com)
- Better Know a Legislator: Sen. Christine Kaufmann and Sen. Jeff Essmann (dgsmith.org)
- 2013 Montana Legislature: GOP lawmakers choose more conservative leaders (missoulian.com)