Rules adopted during the Republican Party’s 2004 national convention begin: “BE IT RESOLVED, That the Republican Party is the party of the open door.”
But exactly who controls access to that door is at the root of a controversy brewing between the well-established Flathead Republican Central Committee and the upstart Flathead Republican Assembly.
“There’s a cleavage in the rock of harmony,” says Stan Fisher, a former Republican legislator from Bigfork.
The National Federation of Republican Assemblies, the national group to which the Flathead chapter belongs, describes itself as “The Republican Wing of the Republican Party.” The meaning of that motto is outlined in the statement of principles posted on the NFRA website. Those principles give religion a central role in the platform.
“We believe that God is the source of eternal truth and law as revealed in the Holy Scripture,” the statement reads. “We... express the conviction that we are a God-fearing people, according one another the equal right of religious freedom and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God.”
The NFRA also outlines stances against assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, entitlement programs, affirmative action and abortion in all forms.
Additionally, the website advertises books promoting the idea that Bill Clinton is a rapist.
If NFRA is the Republican wing of the party, then the Flathead’s Republican Central Committee—the local face of the Republican National Committee—is the official wing.
The story of how the Republican wing may be taking over as the official wing in the Flathead started in 2002, when then-incumbent County Commissioner Dale Williams lost the Republican primary to Gary Hall.
After losing the primary, Williams and others claimed that as many as 2,000 Democrats had “crossed over,” and voted for the more moderate Hall.
Williams then ran as a write-in candidate, with financial support from a local group known as the Real Republicans.
At the time, John Dudis, then-chairman of the Central Committee, said the official wing of the party was unwavering in its support of Gary Hall. He said he worried Williams would cause Republicans to split the vote and give the Democrats a county commissioner seat.
That didn’t happen—then. Williams ultimately lost the battle, but so did the Democrats, and Hall became commissioner.
Although Williams says his work to create the local Assembly chapter a year later had nothing to do with the commissioner’s race, he did say it was formed to combat Democrats voting in Republican primaries to elect moderate candidates.
This is part of the point of the Assembly, to hunt RINOs—to seek out candidates they believe are Republicans In Name Only, which is to say ‘too moderate,’ and make sure they don’t get elected.
By the close of the 2004 primaries, it looked as if the Assembly had succeeded in hunting the Flathead’s RINOs to extinction. Flathead County Commissioner candidate Denise Cofer, an Assembly member reportedly hand-picked by Williams, won the Republican nomination over a field of moderate Republicans.
But during the general campaign, the so-called RINOs charged back with a group called Republicans for the Flathead, claiming too many moderate candidates had split the Republican vote, letting Cofer to win the primary.
To fight Cofer and the Assembly, Republicans for the Flathead ran advertisements in local papers advising Flathead Republicans to vote for Democrat Joe Brenneman for commissioner. The strategy worked, and Brenneman won that election, handing another victory to moderates and defeat to the Assembly.
But according to Fisher and Joan Jellison, a 40- year-plus member of the Flathead Republican Party, the Assembly had already sown the seeds that would enable them to take over the Central Committee—and legitimize the Assembly—during that election.
Leadership of the Central Committee is decided by the votes of precinct captains—one man and one woman chosen during the election by precinct voters.
Over the years, at least 20 of these captain positions became vacant because, according to Fisher, the job requires weekend and evening hours spent pounding the pavement to get the word out about Republican candidates. Both Fisher and Jellison say that Assembly members ran uncontested this year for many of these empty seats, easily winning most of them. Then, at last month’s Central Committee meeting, more Assembly members were appointed to the remaining open seats by a vote of the Committee members.
According to Jellison, principal Commmittee positions went to Assembly members, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan replacing John Dudis as chairman; Norm DeForrest as secretary; Ronni Skees as treasurer; county chair of the Republican Assemblies Ron Hoye as the state committeeman; Anita Hoye as committeewoman; and Ladeline Thompson as congressional committeewoman.
Keenan disputes claims that the Assembly has taken over the Central Committee, saying only three of the 10 elected positions are occupied by Assembly members, and denying that he himself is a member.
Williams, who is now chairman of the Montana Republican Assemblies, confirmed that Keenan is not in fact an Assembly member, but said Keenan is “supportive” of the group, and that all those who were elected met the approval of the Assembly.
Williams also said, “There is no split in the Republican Party. Never has been, never will be, as far as I’m concerned.”
But both Fisher and Jellison affirm the schism, with Jellison adding that, politically, “Most of [the Assembly members] are way out in left field.”
Williams counters that the only aim of the Assembly is to elect Republicans. Keenan says fear that the party has been taken over is “black helicopter paranoia,” and “if anything, the Flathead Republican Party will be more inclusive, and encourage more participation.”
“That’s what they say,” Jellison says. “I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”