Editor’s note: This story is the second of a two-part series on contested Republican legislative primaries in Montana, pitting one faction of the party against another.
CONRAD – In this north-central Montana state Senate district, geologist Joseph Large is taking aim at one of the Senate’s most influential senators: Republican Llew Jones, a leader of the so-called “responsible Republicans.”
Large, of Fairfield, is challenging Jones in Senate District 9’s Republican primary next week – one of two dozen races across the state where hardline conservatives are battling more moderate Republicans.
Whoever prevails in these June 3 Republican legislative primaries may dictate the direction of the 2015 Legislature, where Republicans are expected to maintain their current majorities.
For example, at the 2013 Legislature, the responsible-Republican group teamed up with minority Democrats to pass many of the session’s key bills, including the state budget, school funding reform, shoring up public pensions and state infrastructure.
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The staunchly conservative Republicans opposed this agenda, losing key votes, even though they controlled legislative leadership in 2013.
Jones, a farmer-rancher and businessman from Conrad, sponsored the landmark school funding bill, which increased state funding for schools and promised to reduce local property taxes.
Yet the bill and Jones’ stature as a leader of the responsible-Republican group also made him a target for the party’s more conservative wing, which is supporting Large.
The intra-party divide is a factor in at least nine state Senate GOP primaries and 15 in the House.
Reporters for Lee Newspapers visited five of these Senate districts in recent weeks, for a firsthand look at primary contests throughout the state: the Flathead Valley, Ravalli County, a district stretching from Laurel to Miles City, the Large-Jones race in north-central Montana, and an urban district near Helena.
On Sunday, they profiled the first three races. On Monday, they look at the final two races, in Senate districts nine and 42:
Senate District 9 GOP primary: Llew Jones vs. Joe Large
When a geologist challenges a businessman with a master’s degree in economics for the state Senate, a lot of numbers will get thrown around in the campaign.
That’s what’s happening in the Republican primary in Senate District 9, where well site geologist Joe Large of Fairfield is trying to oust Sen. Llew Jones, a farmer-rancher and businessman from Conrad.
They’re vying for the GOP nomination in this strongly Republican district, which stretches from Lincoln to the Canadian border and includes Augusta, Choteau, Fairfield, Conrad, Shelby and Cut Bank.
Large, 41, is a Maryland native who has lived in Montana since 1992. He said he follows the Legislature closely online and is highly critical of the 2013 session in general and Jones’ voting record in particular.
“I saw him as one of the worst of the Republicans for spending, so I decided to run,” Large said. “You hear the term ‘responsible Republicans.’ They’re now calling themselves ‘reasonable Republicans.’ Montana increased the general fund by about 14 percent. Wealth and income are up about 2 percent.”
That’s a “recipe for a train wreck,” Large said.
Large said he filed for the Senate at 4:55 p.m. on the March 10 filing deadline. In a newspaper ad, he denied being recruited by Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, a leader of the more conservative wing. Essmann concurred in a separate ad.
Montana needs to start attracting manufacturing companies that offer good-paying jobs, Large said. To do so, he advocates reducing Montana’s corporate income tax rate and passing a right-to-work law to not require union membership as a condition of employment.
In campaign materials, Large has plotted data on a chart to illustrate how all 150 legislators voted last year on 77 issues chosen by conservative Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman for the latter’s Taxpayer’s Advisory Bulletin. It shows Jones aligned with Democrats 92 percent on these issues and 8 percent with Republicans.
Jones, 51, called Koopman’s choice of votes “cherry-picking.”
In his brochures, Jones counters with a pie chart showing he voted with the Senate Republican majority on 92 percent of the 423 bills passed by the 2013 Legislature that became law.
Jones, who bills himself as a champion of rural Montana, cites his ranking on scorecards issued by interest groups on key issues.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association, Unified Property Owners of Montana and Montana Hospital Association all gave him 100 percent. Jones has ratings of
98 percent from the Montana Family Foundation and
95 percent from the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
Jones also is a prominent businessman in Conrad, owning stakes in multiple businesses and operating a farm and ranch.
At a forum this month in Conrad, Large said he’s seen no increase in business in 20 years, yet government has grown.
“I think the biggest rhetoric you hear in this state is people saying they are pro-business, they’ve been for business, they believe in business choices,” Large said, in a veiled swipe at Jones.
In response later Jones said, “Details matter. You can look this stuff up. The state actually grew by 73.2 percent in cumulative income since 2003 and government (spending) grew about
50 percent, so it grew less.”
Jones also touted a bill he passed to lower the tax on oil and gas.
“I froze the school-related property tax,” he said. “I’ve done more for local education than any other legislator in the last 20 to 30 years.”
Senate District 42 GOP primary: Joe Dooling vs. Marissa Stockton
For many contested Republican legislative primaries in Montana, the winner on June 3 is probably the district’s next legislator, because the district leans heavily Republican.
But in this mostly urban district that covers the east side of Helena and East Helena, the GOP nominee is no shoo-in this fall. The newly drawn and open district leans Democratic and has two strong Democratic candidates competing in their own primary.
That’s one reason why Republican Joe Dooling of says he’s the best choice for GOP voters in the primary.
“I can work with everybody; I’ve got good friends who are Democrats and I’ve got good friends who are Republicans,” he says. “(And) Independents will lean my way when they see I have a plan for infrastructure, for jobs, for making this place a little better. … I feel like I can reach out to Independent voters and win.”
Dooling, 38, is a farmer-rancher and also works as a project manager for an engineering firm. He’s run unsuccessfully for the Legislature twice before, but has been active in Republican Party politics and has the endorsement of two former Montana GOP congressmen: Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill.
Yet he’s being opposed in the primary by
26-year-old Marissa Stockton, a nanny and former staffer for Montana’s current Republican congressman, Steve Daines.
Stockton says she and her campaign volunteers have knocked on more than 1,700 doors in the district, and that she can appeal to younger voters and women.
“I’m having a blast,” she says. “I love getting out and taking with people.”
Stockton says she’s the conservative in the race, echoing themes often heard among conservative-faction Republicans running elsewhere: Keep government as small as possible and return any budget surplus to the people via tax cuts.
“Some of the ideas (Dooling) has put forth is to tax and spend more,” she says. “That’s not the best solution.”
Stockton, who has home-schooled through 12th grade, also says she’s a proponent of school choice, such as home-schooling, private schools or charter schools.
“I think every child should have that opportunity (to choose their type of education),” she says. “Any way that a child can be educated, we create a better workforce, a better student, a better everything.”
Dooling says he’s not proposing any tax increases, but believes if the state has extra money, it should be spent on shoring up aging infrastructure like roads, water and sewage systems, and schools, which are the underpinnings of a strong economy.
Natural resources should be developed and their tax revenue can help rebuild public schools all across the state, he says.
“To me, the Republican Party says, ‘All right, as government, we’ll provide these central services, and for the rest of it, you provide your own destiny,’ ” Dooling says. “I’m a Chamber of Commerce type of Republican.”
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.