HELENA - Cracks in GOP cohesion have shown up in an unusual spot recently: a series of back-and-forth letters published in the Belgrade newspaper in which one House Republican calls his own leader, Bozeman Rep. Scott Sales, a "do-nothing, accomplish-nothing, never-get-engaged, poor-leadership, and just-say-no" leader.
The letters, published throughout the month of May and early June, are some of the strongest-worded criticism aimed at Sales, the top House Republican both in the 2007 and 2009 legislative sessions. The authors are a pair of longtime Republican lawmakers, Reps. Jesse O'Hara of Great Falls and Walt McNutt of Sidney, who have sometimes been at odds with more conservative members of the party, including Sales.
"The truth is Scott Sales was a disaster," O'Hara told the Missoulian in an interview Thursday.
Both O'Hara and McNutt had letters published in the May 25 editions of the Belgrade News. Sales, who cannot run for re-election in the House due to term limits, is now challenging Gallatin County Commission Chairman Joe Skinner in Tuesday's Republican primary election.
O'Hara and McNutt urged Gallatin County voters to oppose Sales. Wrote McNutt: "Scott Sales for county commissioner of Gallatin County? Must be a joke."
The letters ran in the Belgrade newspaper because the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, by far the largest newspaper in the county, has a policy against publishing letters pertaining to local elections from authors outside the area.
But McNutt and O'Hara weren't the only ones quick with a pen. Other Republicans loyal to Sales also wrote letters to the Belgrade editor, including Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, and Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings.
"Scott's leadership was fair and balanced," wrote McGillvray. "He treated every legislator with respect and the common decency that is often lacking in politics in these times."
Sales' tenure as leader of House Republicans came during two legislative sessions. He served as House speaker in 2007, a contentious session when Republicans had a one-vote lead over Democrats, with 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and a single Constitution Party member who typically voted with the Republicans. Democrats controlled the Senate.
It was a session in which the Legislature ended in disarray and failed to pass a budget as required by the Montana Constitution. That forced a special legislative session. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer brokered a compromise with a group of more moderate House Republicans that led to a budget being approved in the special session.
House Majority Rep. Michael Lange, R-Billings, helped top off the prickly regular session by swearing about Schweitzer before a rolling television camera at a meeting of House Republicans.
Sales was again elected leader of the Republicans for the 2009 session, when the House was evenly divided between the two parties. The GOP controlled the Senate.
Sales said that record of leadership speaks for itself. He also said McNutt and O'Hara are "disgruntled, very liberal Republicans who have undermined the very conservative members of the House for years."
"What they say was without merit and without fact," Sales told the Missoulian on Thursday.
"They talk about all this divisiveness, chaos," Sales said, but added that the video record of Sales' tenure as leader does not show a House in crisis.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Jennifer McKee can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.