Jeff Essman, a Republican senator for Billings and chairman of the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (LCC), confirmed this morning that former GOP executive director Jake Eaton has been temporarily appointed as the new LCC treasurer. Eaton replaces Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, who stepped down last week after a string of negative ads targeting Democratic candidates appeared in the Bitterroot. MacLaren has stated he was not involved in creating the ads, which were circulated by the LCC.
The Montana Democratic Party responded Tuesday to Eaton's appointment by highlighting his political history in the state. Eaton led the effort in 2008 challenging the registration status of some 6,000 voters in left-leaning counties across the state. When Montana Democrats filed a lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy called Eaton’s tactic “political chicanery.” Eaton stepped down as GOP executive director later that year.
“To replace someone who took an honorable stand against dirty campaign tactics with a guy like Eaton who attempted to suppress voter turnout is a questionable choice,” Martin Kidston, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, said in a press release. “In the very least, it speaks toward the lack of integrity within today’s Montana Republican Party.”
Essman defended Eaton’s appointment, asking "why is this relevant" and declaring that who serves as LCC treasurer is “kind of a side-show in my opinion.” When asked by the Independent what specific qualifications led the LCC to select Eaton, Essman attempted to steer the interview in a different direction.
"You know, I wish you kinda spent this much effort asking the Democrats why they felt it necessary to launder their money through two PACs," he said.
When pressed, Essman refused to elaborate on Eaton’s qualifications for the job beyond Eaton being active in Montana politics and a state resident.
“Nothing ever came of those charges,” Essman says of Eaton’s role in the 2008 scandal. “I told you he was appointed. What process we went through in terms of his employment is a matter for the committee. Thank you very much for your time.”
After leaving the GOP in 2008, Eaton joined the conservative group Patients United Now—which in spring 2009 sponsored rallies and TV ads against health care reform—as its chief organizer. He is currently a partner in 47 Degrees North Communications, a political consulting and public affairs firm in Montana, and according to GOP Executive Director Bowen Greenwood has acted as a general consultant for the LCC “for a while.”
Whether Eaton will be considered as a permanent replacement for MacLaren when the LCC next meets is, according to Essman, "up to my committee and Mr. Eaton."