HELENA - State Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings said that he is dropping out of the crowded Republican primary, indicating his presence in the race could detract from the GOP effort to take back the governor's office.
Essmann sent a letter to supporters, dated Thursday, saying Republicans need to be united in their financial support for the primary winner if they hope to defeat Steve Bullock, the Democratic attorney general running for governor. The letter was released to the public on Friday.
Essmann told supporter that "the clear-eyed businessman in me had to reckon with two facts," pointing out he had fallen short of fundraising goals for an expensive race and that he believes unity is needed if Republicans are going to prevail.
Essmann's departure leaves only a few GOP candidates with significant financial support, led by former congressman Rick Hill. In total, eight Republicans remain who have stated they will seek the nomination.
Essmann told campaign supporters he would return donations and turn his focus to helping elect Republicans and preparing for the 2013 legislative session.
"At the end of the analysis, it was time to squarely face the question of whether my continued presence in the race would help our state, and our party, take back the Governor's office, or would it detract from that important effort," he wrote. "I have decided that the best way for me to contribute to that goal is to end my exploratory effort, and return my funds to you, my generous supporters, so that you may put them to use in the monumental battle against the (Democrats)."
Essmann indicated he plans to finish his Senate term and work on Republican priorities in the 2013 Legislature.
The state senator, perhaps best known for revamping the state's medical marijuana law, did not immediately throw his support behind one of the other candidates in the race. The money leaders are Hill, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings and former state Sen. Ken Miller of Laurel.
Also remaining in the race are Bob Fanning of Pray, Neil Livingstone of Helena, former Department of Transportation director Jim Lynch, and Chouteau County Commissioner Jim O'Hara. Another relatively unknown Republican, Roy Morton of Corvallis, filed paperwork last week stating an intent to start raising money in the race.
Bullock, who is leaving the attorney general's office to run for governor, has so far dominated the attention in the Democratic primary. But he does have a challenge from state Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman.
Current Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, is prevented by term limits from running again.