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HELENA - Republican state Rep. Ted Washburn of Bozeman says he's "obviously a conservative" - but finds himself challenged in the June 8 primary election from a fellow Republican who says Washburn isn't conservative enough.

His primary opponent, Ron Murray of Belgrade, has been blasting away at Washburn's votes in favor of state budget bills that passed the 2009 Legislature.

"By voting for those bills ... it increased the tax load, our public debt," says Murray. "As I see it, (Washburn) is not fiscally conservative. ... Government is just getting way too big; we need to put the brakes on it."

Murray, the owner of a limousine company and a dog-obedience school, is among the dozens of Republican legislative candidates mounting challenges from the right in the June 8 primary, rapping their political brethren as quasi-conservatives.

Their campaigns follow similar themes: I'm the real conservative, government is out of control and my opponents are liberals in disguise, who won't really change the status quo.

In all, 38 legislative districts have contested Republican primaries this June. Most feature at least one candidate advertising himself or herself as the true conservative, sometimes challenging an incumbent.

Twelve Republican House incumbents, four of whom are running for open Senate seats, are facing primary challenges this June.

Are these conservative challenges a struggle for the soul of a fractured Montana Republican Party, as some Democrats have suggested?

Billings state Sen. Jeff Essmann, who chairs the Republicans' Legislative Campaign Committee, doesn't think so, and says contested primaries are simply a sign that the party is healthy.

"That's the way democracy is supposed to function," he says. "People are free to put down their 15 bucks (as a filing fee) and go out and visit with the neighbors and seek elective office."

Most GOP candidates are talking about smaller government, less taxes, economic growth and individual rights, Essmann says.

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Yet there are organized efforts to recruit and support conservative candidates within the party.

Roger Koopman, a former state representative from Bozeman and an outspoken conservative, is an organizer of the Montana Conservative Alliance, which is identifying and endorsing legislative candidates who are "conservatives you can trust," as opposed to "sellout Republicans."

"There are times when the voters really need a choice in a primary, when the incumbent Republican is not standing firm on Republican values," he says. "There are many Republicans who no longer believe in the concept of limited government."

Koopman's group has endorsed Murray, the challenger to Rep. Washburn in House District 69 - the Republican stronghold of west Gallatin County.

Washburn, a former law officer who moved here from upstate New York in 1998, says he has high conservative rankings from most groups - but that he's not "a puppet of the (Republican) Party."

"If a law was good for people in my district, that's how I voted," he says.

Washburn was among the handful of Republicans in the House that voted for the 2009 Legislature's two major spending bills that finance state government for the next two years.

The Legislature has to pass a budget, he says, and he felt Democrats and Republicans both accepted things they didn't like in the budget bills. The bills also included money for things needed in his district, like funding for local sewer, water and school projects, he says.

Washburn acknowledges that some conservative groups have targeted him, but says he's glad to run on his record.

"If they don't like the way I voted, they can replace me," he says. "They all want (ideological) purity. And life isn't purity. I believe in the Montana Constitution; I believe in liberty. But when we go to Helena, we're doing the people's business. ... We have to represent all of the people in our district."

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Some candidates openly scoff at the notion that they're not conservative, and doubt efforts by Koopman and others are much of a factor in their races.

"There is more to being a legislator than preaching the Koopman dogma," says Alan Olson, a former state legislator from Roundup and one of four candidates running for the Republican nomination in eastern Montana's Senate District 23. "If I had to campaign on that, I'd be in trouble. ... I've never considered Koopman a threat."

Olson says he has a fine "pro-jobs, pro-business voting record," and that he's not worried about being labeled by some as a nonconservative.

Even one of Olson's competitors, Wes Prouse of Shepherd, says he's not sure the Montana Conservative Alliance endorsement means that much - but he's glad to have it.

"I don't know how big a deal it is," Prouse says. "(But) I am competing for the more flat-out conservative votes, the ones who want to change."

The Koopman group also has endorsed Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, who faces an unusual challenge from sitting Sen. John Esp of Big Timber in House District 61, which includes most of Park County and western Sweet Grass County. No Democrat has filed in the race, so the winner of the primary will be the district's representative.

Esp declined to return the Montana Conservative Alliance survey, saying he doesn't fill out surveys from groups intending to use the results to endorse a candidate: "If I start seeking the endorsement of other groups, I might be beholden to those groups and not the voters."

Esp says he's very much "a conservative guy." Boniek acknowledges the Montana Conservative Alliance endorsement, but says it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone familiar with his views on government and states' rights.

"My constituents know where I stand," he says. "(The Alliance) is just recognizing what I am."

Koopman says his group, which may raise money and spend it on campaign-related material, is merely trying to help voters identify the true conservative candidate in a legislative district.

"Montana is fundamentally a very conservative electorate," he says. "They want government out of their lives and their pockets. Anyone who can articulate that well is going to win in the majority of the legislative districts in our state."

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

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