Closed Primary Debate Heats Up Within Montana GOP

Aaron Flint posted on November 20, 2014 15:18 :: 1031 Views

As several Montana Republican Party County Central Committees go forward with a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s open primary law, controversy is brewing once again as the state party has announced a meeting in January to discuss whether or not to join the lawsuit.

Earlier this week, Montana GOP Chairman Will Deschamps announced that the state central committee will hold a special meeting in Helena on January 10 to discuss joining the lawsuit against the state.

Proponents of the lawsuit continue to criticize the Montana Republican Party Executive Board, and Deschamps in particular, for what they see as deliberate stalling on the matter. The controversy began in June at the state party convention where party members adopted a plank in the party platform that called for closed party primaries in Montana to prevent “crossover voting,” but party leadership decided to wait to take action until after the fall elections.

“Deschamps wants a do-over vote by the state central committee to try to stab in the back the rank and file party members who overwhelmingly voted to change Montana’s corrupt open primary law. That’s what this is about,” stated plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Monforton — himself a newly elected Republican State Rep. from Bozeman — in a telephone interview with Media Trackers.

As reported by Media Trackers, the most recent controversy over Montana’s open primary law erupted in June in the wake of revelations that left-wing groups — most notably MEA-MFT — were encouraging members to vote against conservatives in GOP state legislative primaries.

NBC Montana also ran a story in early June about how a number of typically Democratic voters in heavily Republican districts were voting in GOP primaries to ensure that more conservative candidates would be defeated.

Proponents of the lawsuit have also accused Deschamps of filing an affidavit in support of the state’s recent motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Media Trackers obtained a letter that was sent from seven county central committee members from across Montana to the party executive board that heavily criticized the chairman’s filing of the affidavit and called on the state party to openly support the closed primaries and join the lawsuit.

“Chairman Deschamps’ declaration may well lead the court into concluding that the Montana Republican Party opposes its county committees’ efforts to restore integrity to Montana’s primary elections, especially given that the declaration omits any mention of the state central committee’s near unanimous approval during the state convention in June of a bylaw requiring closed primaries,” states the letter.

In a telephone interview with Media Trackers, Chairman Deschamps emphatically denied that his affidavit supported the state’s motion to dismiss or that he was trying to sabotage efforts within his party to institute closed primaries.

“That is just not true,” Deschamps said.

Deschamps said that the affidavit simply stated the fact that, when the affidavit was filed, the state party had yet to hold or schedule a meeting to discuss the matter.

Deschamps provided Media Trackers with a copy of the affidavit. It was filed in October and states that no one had “called a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Montana Republican Party to discuss, debate or authorize any lawsuit challenging Montana’s open primary laws,” and that “the Executive Committee of the Montana Republican Party has not voted to approve any lawsuit challenging Montana’s open primary laws.”

“My concern from the beginning is that this process needs to be decided by the grassroots of the party,” Deschamps stated.

The chairman noted that support for closed primaries within the Montana GOP was not unanimous. He also wondered how the party would pay the cost of the lawsuit, which he said would be about $75,000.

Monforton, the plaintiffs attorney, led the successful effort to insert a pro-closed primaries plank in the party platform at the state convention. Monforton and his allies then wanted to move immediately to file a lawsuit against the state.

However, the party’s top leadership, led by Deschamps, insisted that the party focus first on the fall elections before moving on the primary issue.

Proponents of the lawsuit are hoping to duplicate the success of a federal lawsuit that the Idaho GOP won in 2011 recognizing the party’s right to close its primaries as part of its First Amendment right to decide which candidates best represent its views.

Monforton told Media Trackers that five Republican county central committees had joined the lawsuit and that he expected five more to get on board in the coming days. The first hearing in federal court will be December 10 in Great Falls.

So far the Republican Central Committees of Ravalli, Gallatin, Sanders, Dawson, and Stillwater Counties have joined the lawsuit.

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