HELENA - In an unusual move three weeks before the election and after a failed attempt to challenge voter registrations in some Democratic strongholds, the Montana Republican Party said Tuesday night it was changing executive directors.
Former state Rep. Larry Grinde of Lewistown was named the party's executive director after Jake Eaton resigned "to pursue other interests," the news release said.
"Larry brings a wealth of experience and knowledge on the job," state Republican Chairman Erik Iverson said in the news release. "He will be a tremendous asset to our candidates as we ramp up our get-out-the-vote operation for the final stretch of the campaign.
Grinde served 14 years in the Montana House, including eight as majority leader, and is the past chairman of the Republican Legislative Candidate Committee.
He helped run Mike Taylor's unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2002 and Pat Davison's unsuccessful primary race for governor in 2004. Two years later, Grinde supervised the Montana Republican Party's get-out-the-the-vote operation.
Iverson was unavailable for comment on the change. GOP spokesman Bridger Pierce said the party would have nothing to add beyond what was in the press release.
Last week, rumors were running rampant in political circles that Eaton would be pushed out because of the much-criticized effort to challenge voter registrations in seven heavily Democratic counties.
Reached by telephone Tuesday night, Eaton said, "It's all going to be all right. I'm going to work for an outfit, DNS Equity Consulting, a consulting and private equity firm in Madison, Wis. It's just one of those deals. The opportunity came up and I took it."
Asked if he was forced out as executive director because of the vote challenges, Eaton said, "No, I'm not going to talk about any of that stuff on the record."
Asked if he had intended to resign his GOP director's post three weeks before the election, he said "it was just an opportunity to come along."
The Montana Democratic Party jumped on the announcement to criticize Republicans for the voter challenges.
"After the efforts of the Republican Party to suppress the rights of 6,000 Montana voters, I think it was clear that a change in management was needed," state Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O'Brien said.
"However, this should not lead anyone to believe that Mr. Eaton was acting independent of his party's leadership. And it doesn't change the fact that the Montana Republican Party owes voters an explanation for why they attempted to undermine the democratic process and cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in the process."
He was referring to the Montana Republican Party's challenge of the registrations of 6,000 voters in Missoula, Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, Deer Lodge, Hill, Glacier and Roosevelt counties.
Republicans raised concerns with registered voters who live at addresses that differ from the addresses listed on their voter registration information. The party asked that county election officials have voters to prove their current addresses.
Montana Democrats, charging it was an attempt to suppress voter turnout, went to federal court to block the effort.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula didn't rule in the case, but issued a strongly worded order blasting the Republicans.
"The timing of these challenges is so transparent that it defies common sense to believe the purpose is anything but political chicanery," Molloy wrote.
On Friday, Democrats dropped the lawsuit after Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican, filed court documents saying similar voter challenges should be rejected in the future. The Republicans had withdrawn their challenges earlier last week.
Charles S. Johnson, chief of the Missoulian Newspapers State Bureau in Helena, can be reached at 1-800-525-4920, (406) 443-4920 or firstname.lastname@example.org.