HELENA — Montana Senate Republicans held a pep talk Thursday for their members after documents detailing an internal power struggle publicly exposed a widening rift within the caucus — but the message was met with skepticism by at least one ousted leader.
Senate President Jeff Essmann, appearing to offer a concession, told the caucus he will let the group decide policy goals collectively — including whether to back those coming from moderates. Essmann said his only personal goal is a conservative and balanced budget.
"I wanted to talk to the caucus about what binds us together as Republicans, and we need to focus on that while we are here to serve, not our differences," Essmann said. "It's just like a disagreement in a family. First you have to recognize the differences and then make things work."
The Republican leader said he is "optimistic" the party will come together on key votes as the session moves along.
It was one of the first caucus meetings the group has held during so far this session, and comes after emails published this week by the Great Falls Tribune revealed plans by conservative Republicans including Essmann to take over Senate leadership from a more moderate faction. The emails were full of harsh criticism of moderate leaders and their agenda.
Essmann was elected Senate president over former president Jim Peterson of Buffalo in November.
But one ousted leader, Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell, said "Reagan Republicans" like himself are skeptical of Essmann's message. He said the moderates have their own policy goals: fix the pension system, advance a school funding makeover being drafted by Republican Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad, and fund colleges enough to freeze tuition.
But Tutvedt, who was attacked during a primary battle by conservative groups he believes are tied to those involved in Essmann's takeover, expects the moderate goals will be quashed. He said the "extremists" have their own agenda they aren't disclosing, and alleged that attacks on moderates are continuing in the background.
"If we don't stand up for our Reagan Republican values we will continue to lose statewide races and be seen as extremists," he said in an interview after the caucus meeting. "Listen, they didn't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Reagan Republicans to have no agenda."
Veteran state Sen. John Brenden of Scobey gave a speech at the caucus that seemed aimed at both sides of the split, urging everyone to stick together.
Brenden recalled the party was in splintered in 1981 and very ineffective before it coalesced around some statewide goals when he became state chairman two years later. The party began to win statewide elections after years of losing efforts.
He said trying to herd "a bunch of independent-minded Republicans is like trying to herd a bunch of chickens." But he said Republicans have learned the hard way in the past that fighting each other would have led to more election losses, and urged them to avoid a repeat by not speaking ill off each other.
At the caucus meeting, Essmann handed out a list of proposed agenda priorities submitted by individual senators. He asked the group to respond with feedback for possible inclusion on a list of policy proposals collectively supported.
"From my perspective, I was elected Senate president to serve the Senate," Essmann said. "I believe my role is to serve the caucus as well, not to be its master."