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HELENA – As a divided Montana Republican Party gathers Friday in Bozeman for its annual state convention, a former legislator for the GOP is suggesting the party should rate its candidates and officeholders on how they uphold party principles – and perhaps withhold support from those who don’t.

“How many times can you vote against (Republican principles) and still be a Republican?” asks Derek Skees, a one-term state representative from Whitefish who ran unsuccessfully for state auditor last year.

“All we’re saying is, it’s lying to the public when you show up and don’t (vote party principles). … We’re tired of people who talk it and don’t walk it.”

Skees, an outspoken conservative, recently sent an email to fellow conservatives within the party, asking whether they’d support a party resolution to create “unity principles” that candidates must largely support if they expect help from the Montana GOP.

He also said if a Republican legislator’s votes showed lack of support for the principles, he or she could be targeted for defeat in the next Republican primary election.

In an interview Thursday, Skees said he won’t be offering any resolutions at this weekend’s convention – but does expect his idea to generate plenty of discussion, on how the party can or will define what it means to be a Republican in Montana.

Skees says he came up with the idea in the wake of the 2013 Montana Legislature, where a small group of Republican lawmakers went against their majority leadership and joined minority Democrats to pass most of the session’s major legislation.

The votes to increase funds for public schools, fix public employee pension funds and grant a pay raise for state employees angered many conservatives, who said Republicans who joined Democrats had betrayed conservative, small-government principles.

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Two Republican senators who sometimes joined Democrats on key votes, Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell and Llew Jones of Conrad, said Thursday that Skees’ proposal amounts to a “purity list” that is offensive to voters and would divide and harm the Republican Party.

“These would be the political hacks, creating a list (on) what it means to be a Republican,” Jones said. “It’s a level of arrogance that is almost unimaginable. … I can’t imagine anything that is more disrespectful to the voter.”

Will Deschamps, the state Republican Party chairman, also denounced the idea Thursday, saying voters can decide who represents them without the party picking and choosing who’s a good Republican.

“(Skees) is trying to toss some people out of the Republican Party and that isn’t what we’re all about,” Deschamps said. “We don’t sign loyalty oaths. It’s absolutely ludicrous.”

Deschamps is being challenged this weekend for the party chairmanship by two men, including Don Hart of Bozeman, who is supported by Skees.

Hart wouldn’t say whether he supports Skees’ idea for a list of “unity principles.” But he did say while he respects differences within the Republican Party, its members should be working toward common goals.

“You may not be at 100 percent, but the more we have people thinking along those same lines, the better off we’re going to be,” Hart said.

Gary Carlson of Victor, the third person running for the chairmanship, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Delegates at the convention will choose the new chairman on Saturday.

Skees, a convention delegate, said he’s still refining his proposal, but the general idea is to choose perhaps 10 basic principles the define Republicans and use them to rate a Republican lawmaker’s votes or what a GOP candidate stands for.

If they vote or disagree more than 20 percent of the time, for example, then they wouldn’t get support from the party – and voters would be informed on the ratings as well, he said.

Skees said identifying the true conservatives will help the party win elections, because a majority of Montana voters are conservatives and want to vote for those who will represent them.

Republican legislators who voted with Democrats on key issues during the Legislature “severely damaged the credibility of the Republican Party in the state of Montana,” he said.

Tutvedt, however, said Thursday those votes are what his constituents wanted – and that enforcing a rigid, ideological purity will hurt, not help, the Republican Party.

“The party that (Skees) wants will be a party of the minority forever,” Tutvedt said.

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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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