Republican leaders in the Montana Senate are reacting to a series of emails showing a sharp divide between the moderate and conservative factions of their party.
The private emails obtained by the Great Falls Tribune speak of a long-term strategy of Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings) to create an atmosphere leading to a more conservative Legislature and a more conservative Montana Supreme Court. In the emails, Essman suggested moderate Republicans could ‘derail the conservative agenda.’ He said moderates were in a position to block such an agenda if they decide to align with Democrats.
But on Thursday afternoon, Essman tried to alleviate sore feelings about the emails during a Senate Republican Caucus meeting. He said he’s always been consistent about his agenda to create a ‘conservative, balanced budget.’ He assured the group he was elected Senate President to serve the whole body, Republicans and Democrats.
“My responsibility to them is to make sure their bills get a fair hearing and that the rights of the minority are respected,” he said.
Essman defeated 2011 Senate President Jim Peterson (R-Buffalo)a, who did run for re-election. Peterson is seen as more moderate by comparison, and was referred to several times in the emails among Essman, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, Majority Whip Eric Moore and Senators Jason Priest, Ed Walker and Dave Lewis.
The emails speak about not being able to trust Peterson not to work with Democrats, calling him a chump. Peterson said he finds the emails unbelievable, saying current leadership seems to be making no room for those he calls ‘Reagan Republicans.’
“You know, Reagan prided himself on being able to hear both sides of a conversation and finding a solution. And here that’s getting tougher to do…without feeling your future being jeopardized,” Peterson said.
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (R-Bozeman) doesn’t shy away from saying he was strategizing for a way to promote his world view in the emails.
“It’s not just conservatism, I think there are other things that we were concerned about,” he said. “Frankly, we wanted strategic thought, we wanted competence in our leadership.”
He said the ideological debate going on within the GOP is a discussion happening across the country and that the emails don’t change the intentions of his party to work across the aisle and within their own aisle to find common ground.