State Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, resigned as treasurer of the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (LCC) last week after a string of negative campaign ads targeting Democratic candidates appeared in Ravalli County. MacLaren has stated he had no role in the ads circulated by the LCC, but it isn't MacLaren who's generating buzz. It's his replacement.
Jeff Essman, a Republican senator from Billings and chairman of the LCC, confirmed that former GOP executive director Jake Eaton was temporarily appointed as the new LCC treasurer. Whether Eaton is considered as a permanent replacement when the LCC next meets is "up to my committee and Mr. Eaton," Essman says.
The Democratic Party responded Tuesday by pointing to Eaton's colorful past. Eaton led the effort in 2008 challenging the registration status of some 6,000 voters in left-leaning counties across the state. When 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," said Martin Kidston, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, in a press release.
Essman defended Eaton's appointment and questioned its relevancy. He 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."
After leaving the GOP in 2008, Eaton served as chief organizer for the conservative group Patients United Now, which in spring 2009 sponsored rallies and TV ads against health care reform. He is currently a partner in 47 Degrees North Communications, a Montana-based political consulting and public affairs firm, and, according to GOP Executive Director Bowen Greenwood, he has acted as a general consultant for the LCC "for a while."