A Washington D.C.-based group recently came out in support of Les Gilman in the three-way primary race for House District 71 and the other two candidates, Ray Shaw and incumbent Bob Wagner, aren’t real happy about it.
Two weeks ago, Mainstreet Advocacy, a Republican group based in Washington D.C. sponsored both radio ads and a direct mailed flier supporting Gilman and his candidacy.
The flier focused on three primary issues: government accountability, lower taxes and common sense solutions to problems. It contained Gilman’s phone number and a small piece of biographical information along with a photo of him.
Mainstreet Advocacy got involved in about a dozen races around Montana in support of Republicans, said the group’s director Sarah Chamberlain.
However, the group didn’t organize as a political action committee, but rather became involved in the races as a corporation, which under Montana law is illegal, said Mary Baker, program supervisor for the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Montana is currently involved in legal action concerning the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to donate money in support of candidates, Baker said.
“It is illegal for a corporation to file for a candidate,” Baker said. “When they start naming specific candidates, obviously you’re not talking about just information anymore.”
The group has stopped running the ads and mailing fliers, Chamberlain said. She wasn’t aware of Montana’s opposition to the Supreme Court decision and so didn’t know their fliers would be illegal.
As of noon on Tuesday, no official complaint had been filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices, Baker said.
The race for HD 71 is unique in the fact that it pits three Republicans against each other, and with no Democratic challenger, the race will essentially be over after the June 8 primary, though officially a write-in candidate can still get on the general election ballot.
The surprise participation of the Mainstreet Advocacy group has frustrated Shaw.
“To me it was a slap in the face, not only to me or Bob (Wagner) but to everybody in House District 71,” Shaw said.
He believes Mainstreet Advocacy is going to want something in return from Gilman – should he be elected – for their support.
“To me those are big special interests groups – why are they promoting him? They want something. They want something from him or they wouldn’t have promoted him and what that is I don’t know,” Shaw said. “It’s just not fair to our communities or either Bob or I.”
However, Gilman denies that he had anything to do with the fliers and ad.
“I have no allegiance to and I don’t owe them anything,” Gilman said.
Wagner believes Mainstreet Advocacy got involved in the HD 71 race because they want to see him out of office.
“They could care less whether Les or Ray get elected,” Wagner said. “They just hate my guts.”
He believes Mainstreet Advocacy is a group of moderate Republicans, who are out to oust true conservatives holding office in Montana.
“They don’t want to see me or anybody who stands up for the constitution elected, period the end,” Wagner said.
John Brueggeman, a Republican state senator from Polson, helped Mainstreet Advocacy determine which races to get involved in.
And that’s where this story splits into two major threads – one storyline is the battle statewide between factions in the Republican Party and the other story is how this battle has bled into the race for HD 71.
Montana GOP divisions
During the primary races in 2008, Republican candidates around the state faced primary battles from fellow Republicans, Brueggeman said. It was a coordinated effort by a group called Montana Conservatives, which was represented in part by former state representative Roger Koopman in Bozeman.
The Montana Conservatives and Koopman made the 2008 races very negative and attacked fellow Republicans with a smear campaign, Brueggeman said.
Koopman, however, disagrees.
The Montana Conservatives in 2008 worked to inform voters about the voting records of incumbent legislators. They conducted exhaustive analysis of the legislative voting records of both Democrats and Republicans through the lens of one key question: did they vote for legislation that expanded the role of government?
While Democrats were consistently liberal, the Montana Conservatives found that Republicans were all across the board, some even had voting records more liberal than Democrats, Koopman said.
In 2008, the Montana Conservatives picked 13 Republican primary races and sent informational material around to voters informing them of the liberal voting record of the Republican incumbent, he said.
If Brueggeman wants to call that dirty politics, he can, but the idea was just to inform voters, Koopman said.
“We at Montana Conservatives, just believe in getting out the information and having a good debate of issues and just let the voters decide,” he said.
The problem was that in 2008 many good Montana Republicans who worked hard for the people of their district were unfairly targeted by fellow Republicans, Brueggeman said.
“Roger Koopman and his crew went after a bunch of Republicans they didn’t think were pure enough,” Brueggeman said.
In response to the 2008 race, Brueggeman recruited Mainstreet Advocacy to help combat the negative campaigning by the Montana Conservatives.
“I guess it’s sort of an arms race now and I wish we weren’t in the middle of it,” he said.
However, Mainstreet Advocacy is only a Republican group by name, they are actually funded by liberal organizations, such as the Service International Employees Union, Koopman said.
This is another interesting twist to this story. The SEIU, which is a labor Union, gave the Mainstreet Advocacy group $10,000, Chamberlain said. However, the money was donated while she was on vacation and when she found out about it, she immediately returned the donation.
Mainstreet Advocacy is a Republican organization and to say otherwise is to be ignorant of the facts, she said.
“We were formed years ago to counter some of what we consider the radical far right,” Chamberlain said. “We are conservative, we’ve always been conservative.”
Their supporters include U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, from Kentucky, she said.
The difference between Mainstreet Advocacy and the far right extreme groups is the positive focus, Chamberlain said.
“We choose to be very positive and that’s what I think is the different between conservatives and what I consider to be the radical right,” she said.
All politics is local
Wagner doesn’t have much patience with moderate Republicans.
Some of the state Republican lawmakers are uncomfortable following the state constitution, he said.
“It’s a pretty fixed document that’s pretty strict and people don’t like strict,” Wagner said.
Wagner specifically referred to Brueggeman. Both Koopman and Wagner feel like Brueggeman is a liberal Republican.
Obviously, Brueggeman rejects that characterization and points to his work in the legislature to limit the size of government.
And though the battle around the state between feuding factions of the Republican party may have implications for the balance of power in the 2011 legislature, (in 2009, Republicans held a narrow majority in the house and were in the minority in the senate) its impact on the HD 71 race won’t be known until June 8.
For Gilman’s part, he wishes Mainstreet Advocacy had stayed out of the HD 71 contest.
“I regret that they chose to enter into this campaign, because I thought I was doing just fine without them,” he said.
Mainstreet Advocacy has never contacted him, either prior to the ads running and fliers being mailed or since. This was supported by both Brueggeman and Chamberlain.
“I’ve never met, I’ve never even talked to Les Gilman,” Brueggeman said.
To figure out whom to support in the HD 71 race, Brueggeman asked people he knew in Madison County. People both pointed to Gilman and Shaw as good candidates. But he felt they could only send out literature on one candidate, so they picked Gilman.
“From what I hear they were both very good guys,” he said.
However, the support for Gilman from this outside group wasn’t done with the voters of HD 71 in mind, Shaw said.
“It just wasn’t fair and that’s all there is to it,” he said.
The things the ads and fliers said Gilman supports, Shaw also supports: limited government, accountability and common sense solutions.
“Those are things I’ve been promising since I started,” he said.
The involvement of Mainstreet Advocacy in the HD 71 race should concern everyone, Wagner said.
It’s expensive to run campaigns and his supporters get frustrated when they see outside money come in like this, he said.
“They get concerned that their efforts are being offset by groups of people that are from somewhere else that have no interest in anything in southwest Montana other than changing the culture and the values of the people that live here,” Wagner said.
For the June 8 primary, voters will be able to select either a Republican or Democrat ballot. The two ballots have all the local issues on them but only the Republican ballots will have the HD 71 candidates.