GOP Leaders react to emails indicating division in party, encourage unity

Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings), center,  speaks with the Senate GOP Caucus Thursday

Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings), center, speaks with the Senate GOP Caucus Thursday

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.

Shifting media landscape changing how state newspaper endorsements viewed

About this time in the election cycle newspapers traditionally start releasing their endorsements for candidates in political races.

But, in this rapidly evolving media marketplace, do those kinds of endorsements matter?

If you talk to Democratic Attorney General candidate Pam Bucy about newspaper endorsements—she’s quick to say they definitely matter. Bucy just received the nod from the state’s largest newspaper, the Billings Gazette. She is locked in a tough race against Helena attorney, Republican Tim Fox.

To get an endorsement, both candidates will go through an interview with the paper’s editorial board.

“And they ask a lot of questions,” Bucy said,  “a lot of hard questions about what you’ve done, what your background is.”

The boards generally include community stakeholders and citizens. Bucy says with the exploding number of media options available, voters are looking for that kind of insight.

“It is very hard to get the information you need to make an educated choice off of a 30 second sound bite,” Bucy said.

Of course, candidates receive all types of endorsements. Just go to any campaign website. Notable community figures, or organizations. This week, NRA National President David Keene gave his endorsement to Bucy’s challenger Tim Fox during a public event at the state capitol building.

MSU Political Science Professor David Parker says newspaper endorsements can matter, especially in a lower tier race like Attorney General. Parker says you have to think about your information environment. Comparatively, not as much information in the AGs race, so he says it’s not so much that the reputation of the editorial board matters.

“The thing that matters a lot is there’s somebody out there that’s paying attention to this race and they endorse this person. that’s a big piece of information,” Parker said.

Plus, he says other reporters may do stories on these endorsements, essentially equating to more free advertising. Yet, Parker believes newspaper endorsements matter a lot less for high-profile races like the Tester-Rehberg Senate race.

“I can’t imagine endorsements of any of the newspapers or television stations or news outlets would make a terrible amount of difference just because there’s so much information out there it doesn’t really have any added benefit,” Parker said.

The Billings Gazette has also endorsed Democrat Monica Lindeen for State Auditor, Democrat Linda McCulloch for Secretary of State and Laurie McKinnon for a spot on the Montana Supreme Court.

Other newspapers in the state are dropping the practice of endorsements. This weekend the Great Falls Tribune announced it would be stopping endorsements of any political candidates. Publisher and Editor Jim Strauss thinks it may be the first time in the paper’s 127-year history it won’t be doing so. Strauss says the paper is cutting endorsements for the same reason Pam Bucy supports them—the tidal wave of new media.

He says so many media organizations today blur the lines between news and opinion. While reporters in the Great Falls Tribune Newsroom have never been involved in the endorsements made by the editorial board, Strauss isn’t sure today’s audience is making that distinction.

“After endorsements run, people want to label us one way or another and I see that as unfortunately undermining our top priority which is to provide that thorough, credible coverage,” Strauss said.

Strauss says that certainly won’t stop his paper from bringing that coverage to the election, even if it doesn’t include the long held tradition of endorsements.