HELENA – Now that Montana’s slate of legislative candidates is complete, the “battle for the soul” of the Montana Republican Party is underway, as more than a dozen incumbent GOP legislators face primary challenges this spring.

The intraparty struggle also saw an unusual wrinkle Monday, as Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman – a leader of the more conservative faction – decided to ditch his Senate post and run in a neighboring House seat.

Wittich said majority leadership has more power in the House than in the Senate, and he felt he could be “more effective” there: “I want to be where the action is, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Montana Republicans are favored to maintain their majorities in the state House and Senate this election, although it’s likely Democrats will shrink the current margins, which stand at 61-39 in the House and 29-21 in the Senate.

But the real wild card in this year’s legislative elections is what type of Republicans will emerge from their 40 contested primaries June 3, many of which feature a battle between competing factions within the GOP.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, a leader of the faction calling themselves the “responsible” or “business” Republicans, said Wednesday they recruited numerous candidates to challenge ideological conservatives who want to hamstring government.

“We worked our tail off to give the voters a choice, so there is a reasonable candidate that believes there is a place for government – a small, but well-functioning government – instead of the chaos and anarchy these (other) guys want,” he said.

In the House, 13 Republican incumbents face a primary challenger and, in another House race, a Senate incumbent running for the seat is being challenged in the primary.

In the Senate, two Republican incumbents, as well as five House incumbents running for an open Senate seat, have primary opposition.

Most of these races are in strongly Republican districts, where the winner of the Republican primary election is likely to be the district’s next senator or representative.

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Lauren Caldwell, director of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, pointed to the plethora of contested GOP primaries this week and called it a “battle for the soul of the Republican Party.”

Tutvedt agreed, saying an “extremist” faction of the party wants to slash government funding and programs to an unrealistic level that would harm schools, the university system, infrastructure and other items that an economy needs to function.

“People will have to watch these races in their community and see which candidates support a quality, world-class education and which ones want something else,” he said.

Wittich said Republican candidates he’s supporting can be relied upon to vote for smaller government and less regulation, instead of team up with minority Democrats like some did at the 2013 Legislature, to approve more government spending.

“People are going to be able to decide if they want a two-party system or a modified one-party system, which is what we had last session, with the crossover (Republicans),” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. It’s going to strengthen the party.”

Wittich himself faced primary opposition in the two Bozeman-area Senate seats where he could have run, and chose instead to run for the House in District 68 in Belgrade, where he has no primary opponent and is likely to win the Republican-leaning seat.

Tutvedt said he thinks the more conservative faction has decided to try to “take over the House,” because they couldn’t control the Senate in 2013.

At least eight House Republican incumbents from the centrist camp face conservative challengers.

Yet a half-dozen GOP primaries in the House have someone from the “responsible” Republican camp taking on a more conservative incumbent or candidate.

The same dynamic is at work in as many as nine Senate GOP primaries, including a contest in SD34 in Belgrade, pitting two House incumbents against each other: Reps. Ted Washburn and Gordon Vance, who is the current House majority leader.

Vance, who is supported by Wittich, said the contested primaries show that Republicans are a party of diverse views. But he also made it clear that he’ll campaign on smaller government, lower taxes and returning taxes to the people.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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