This article serves as an “explainer” to describe the current crisis at the Montana legislature and what can be expected from it in the near future.
The 2021 Legislative Session should look bright for conservative Republicans who now control the Montana House, Senate, and Governorship. But thanks to a curious appointment, it seems that the state’s conservatives may now be at war.
WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL ABOUT LLEW JONES AND THE SOLUTIONS CAUCUS?
For 15 years (or so), a conspiracy between Montana’s Democrat governors and Llew Jones (R-Conrad) has given power to the minority Democratic Party. This was possible because Jones has consistently maintained a caucus of up to two-dozen “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) legislators who would caucus with him to cross party lines and support Democrat bills, as they did with Medicaid Expansion in 2018.
This group, which has changed names faster than Emmy’s hosts change outfits between awards, is currently known as the “Conservative Solutions Caucus.” Other names include the Solutions Caucus (they added “Conservative” earlier this year), the Responsible Republicans, the Common Sense Republicans, and the Log Cabin Republicans, among others. The group of legislators typically have F-ratings in party loyalty from Legistats and regularly buck Republican leadership.
Jones has been assisted over the years by chief lieutenants of his RINO herd, including Jesse O’Hara, Ed Buttrey, Walt McNutt, Eric Moore, Geraldine Custer, Nancy Ballance, and others.
HOW DID THE SOLUTIONS CAUCUS GET BEAT IN THE ‘RED WAVE’?
There are numerous factors that led to the defeat of a sizable portion of Llew Jone’s RINO caucus and the ouster of several of his lieutenants. While Jones survived election unopposed, several of his key allies did not. The reasons for their defeat include but are not limited to:
1. The organization, Legistats, began keeping track of RINO votes when they side with Democrats and factored in their opposition to Republican leadership on partisan bills using an ingenious and impartial algorithm created by the late Trevis Butcher and continued by his father, (former) Senator Ed Butcher. Legistats was pivotal in explaining to the electorate that although Solutions Caucus members might appear to vote with Republicans on the majority of issues, most of those votes with Republicans are on bipartisan procedural issues. But when it really counts on conservative legislation, Solutions Caucus RINOs cross over with Democrats the majority of the time.
2. The Montana Daily Gazette was credited by numerous legislators for helping to swing the election toward conservatives, by – among other things – widely publishing the findings of Legistats to help “smoke out the foxes” and let voters know if their legislators are as conservative in Helena as they claim to be at home. The Montana Democrat junk-blog, Montana Post, also blamed the Montana Daily Gazette for the Red Wave.
3. Matt Regier and Dr. Annie Bukacek launched Doctors for a Healthy Montana, which placed billboards and various kinds of advertising in districts that had incumbent RINOs, alerting voters to their support for Medicaid Expansion which provides taxpayer funding for abortion. The significance of this PAC in the 2020 primaries cannot be overstated.
4. Donald Trump’s re-election bid drove conservatives out to the polls (or got them to return ballots in the mail) in figures never seen before in Montana. And those conservatives were especially paying attention this year to “the swamp,” figures in politics whose loyalties were rightfully questioned by Trump and even on the “down-ballot” for district candidates.
5. Other groups that contributed to the conservative victories over the RINOs include the Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA), Montanans for Limited Government, and Cindy Hamilton’s excellent work at the Free Montana Project.
In the end, Jones lost key RINOs in his caucus to more conservative candidates.
DOES JONES STILL HAVE ENOUGH VOTES TO WRECK THE CONSERVATIVE AGENDA?
That’s a maybe, but it’s also probably not. Jones claims to command 20 votes. No one that we know of thinks that number is accurate. Some suggest the number could be as high as 17, which could theoretically thwart Republican plans. The Montana Daily Gazette thinks the number is 14, with possible “sleepers” or new legislators whose loyalties are not yet known.
However, it is extremely unlikely that if Llew Jones took the “nuclear option” and openly pledged his support to the Democratic Party that more than a few would follow him. So while as many as 17 might find a degree of fidelity with Jones’ RINO tendencies, few will find a convincing reason to follow him to hell and back after his primary election losses.
WHY IS LLEW JONES BACK IN THE NEWS?
Two men ran for Speaker of the House; Matt Regier and Wylie Galt. Both are A+ rated in Legistats and have very conservative voting records. However, Llew Jones aggressively threw his support behind Galt, who won the Speakership by one vote.
The reason Jones support Galt over Regier is supposed by many to be Regier’s work in the primary to oust RINO incumbents (while Galt remained publicly uncommitted). It was presumed that Regier would treat Jones with perceived hostility while Galt would prove himself more amicable. Those who voted for Galt over Regier report to the Gazette that they believed Galt’s leadership would help heal the party divide. Meanwhile, those who voted for Regier over Galt believe it was foolish to presume that the divide could be healed. After all, Jones has proven himself incorrigible for fifteen years. Why Galt would assume that Jones would now behave himself is mysterious to many.
The Speaker of the House approves committee chair positions, and one of Galt’s first acts was to place Jones as chairman of Appropriations, arguably the most powerful and prestigious committees in the Montana House. This has infuriated conservatives.
WHY DID GALT APPOINT THE LOSER RINO TO HOUSE APPROPRIATION’S COMMITTEE?
There are several possible explanations. While the Gazette did speak to Galt about his decision, it was off-the-record. But we will give the explanations that others have posited.
The first possibility – and the most generous – is that Galt was seeking to “keep his friends close and enemies closer.” By appointing Jones to the chair, he would be keeping himself busy and have less time to build RINO coalitions in backroom meetings in his spare time.
The second possibility is that Galt was just valuing experience above and beyond anything else. Few, if any, have more experience in the Montana House than Llew Jones. This possibility has a problem, however, and that problem is reality. If this was the only criterion Galt used, Ken Holmlund would be the chair of Appropriations.
The third possibility is that Galt was merely trying to appease Jones like one might pat a junkyard dog on the head, hoping to delay an ankle-bite or two. Could a simple appointment to Appropriations make a leopard change his spots? Time will tell.
Less charitable reasons that have been posited for Galt’s appointment of Jones to Appropriations is that there was a “devil’s bargain” in exchange for Jones’ support of Galt’s run for speaker and future run for statewide office. While Galt could not have won without Jones’ support (this is mathematically indisputable), it’s not reasonable to presume a devil’s bargain would have to have been made at all considering Jones would under no circumstance support Regier anyway (Jones loathes him).
This rumor takes shape when combined with something that Montana Daily Gazette has been able to verify; Galt promised the chairmanship of Appropriations to the conservative stalwart, Brad Tschida. This has been verified by those within the room when this occurred. However, some say that the promise was made contingent upon Tschida supporting Galt’s candidacy for Speaker. In the days preceding the election, however, Tschida campaigned behind the scenes for Regier (leaving some to say that it was Tschida, and not Galt, that broke their deal). However, others point out (with a degree of plausibility) that Tschida only began to campaign for Regier when the rumor leaked that Galt would appoint Jones to Appropriations.
So far as that rumor is concerned, the Montana Gazette can verify that when we heard Tschida was supporting Regier several days before the vote, it was said that it was because Galt was going to appoint Jones to Appropriations. If this is accurate, then it appears that it was Galt who broke his word and not Tschida because his support did not change until it was presumed that Galt would place the RINO in a powerful position.
CONSERVATIVES ARE FURIOUS. HERE’S WHAT THEY MIGHT DO ABOUT IT.
OPTION 1: A Re-Vote for Speaker: The Montana Daily Gazette is aware of four legislators who voted for Galt who have told us they would switch their vote to Regier if another vote was held. Each one feels betrayed by Galt and say they never would have voted for him had they known Llew Jones would be given chairmanship of any kind, let alone Appropriations.
The Montana Daily Gazette has confirmed that numerous legislators are game-planning a re-vote and researching the possibilities of calling electing a new Speaker. We have also spoken to both Regier and Tschida who are not personally spearheading such a movement (in case anyone is wondering).
A petition has been drafted to do just that. It reads…
WHEREAS: For far too long, Helena insiders and the political establishment have controlled the legislative process. Llew Jones’ and other so-called Republican “Solutions Caucus” members have teamed up with Democrats. During the past 16 years, state spending has increased from $6 Billion to $14 Billion without significant population growth as Rep. Jones “cut deals” with the Democrat governors.
WHEREAS: During the 2019 Legislative session, this handful of Republicans joined with Democrats more than two hundred times to grow government, raise taxes, and hand Governor Bullock nearly every item on his far-left wish list. In the 2020 Primary, grassroots Montanans turned out in great numbers to vote these liberal Republicans [the “Democrat Wing”] out of office resulting in Rep. Jones losing seven of his loyal supporters. In the General Election, conservatives created a Red Tsunami by winning every statewide office and giving Republicans a supermajority in both the House and Senate—let’s not allow backroom deals to sabotage the Republican Governor’s agenda of smaller government and fewer regulations from an inflated bureaucracy.
WHEREAS: Voters were clear: They want the lower taxes and smaller government which Governor-elect Gianforte has pledged to implement.
WHEREAS: Instead of listening to voters, powerful politicians cut backroom deals to keep themselves in power by electing a Speaker who would let them continue to cut backroom deals, rather than working for the people they are supposed to represent. Rather than putting conservatives in charge of the state’s budget, Rep. Jones’ “Democrat Wing” of the Republican majority of the Legislature voted in a secret-ballot election to choose a Speaker of the House that would give them everything they wanted.
WHEREAS: After 16 years of Democrats controlling the Governorship, we deserve an open government process. This starts with an open-ballot [Roll-Call vote] for a new election for Speaker of the House. Voters deserve to know where their elected officials stand—either with their constituents or their own personal special interests.
WHEREAS: In order to restore integrity in our state government, we are calling for a new election for 2021 Speaker of the House – with legislators publicly stating on record their choice – not marking a secret ballot that gets destroyed after counting.
THEREFORE: WE THE UNDERSIGNED VOTERS OF MONTANA REQUEST THAT THE REPUBLICAN LEGISLATIVE CAUCUS REVISIT THEIR VOTE FOR HOUSE SPEAKER AND HOLD AN ELECTION OF RECORD WITH EACH LEGISLATOR PUBLICALLY CASTING THEIR VOTE
The Montana Daily Gazette will include a hyperlink to the petition when it is publicly available.
OPTION 2: A Petition to oust Jones from Appropriations, but to leave Galt as Speaker: The Montana Daily Gazette can confirm the creation of a petition to House legislators that would leave Galt as Speaker, but demand that he remove Jones from his committee appointment. However, it is unclear if such a petition wil be launched and we have not seen a final version.
WILL CONSERVATIVE EFFORTS WORK?
Montana Daily Gazette has spoken to more than one legislator whose goal is to find at least 40 Republicans who will vote Galt out of his Speakership. It is unknown if they have been successful. Some conservatives want to call a vote even if they aren’t sure of the outcome, if for no other reason, than to send a signal to Galt that compromise with the Solutions Caucus will not be tolerated.
Obviously, legislators do not have to obey petitions, but the creation and circulation of such a petition should speak volumes, if it develops. Galt would be foolhardy not to consider his appointment of Jones to have been unnecessarily divisive. Without a doubt, the decision placed the upcoming legislative session and its hopeful unity in doubt.
For the first time in a decade-and-a-half, Republicans have super majorities in the legislature and a Republican governor. If Galt’s appointment of Jones was an attempt to create party unity, it backfired. And if Galt has a plan for how this will all work out in the conservatives’ favor, it has yet to be seen.