HELENA — Montana Senate Republicans decided Wednesday to adopt a harder edge, ousting their current leadership team in elections that marked a desire among some in the party to draw a sharper distinction with Democrats.
Republicans, who still control both chambers after last week's election, also expressed a desire for a better relationship with Democratic Gov.-elect Steve Bullock than they had with outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Bullock said he was open to finding common ground, but cautioned the GOP against bringing him partisan bills or those like the "gold standard" proposal that have been mocked by Democrats.
All eyes were on the Senate Republican caucus election where current Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo was ousted in a secret ballot election. Those seeking a more conservative and effective leader had actively campaigned against him, and Peterson left the room without comment after the vote.
Republicans instead chose current Majority Leader Jeff Essmann as their nominee for Senate president. The nomination faces selection in front of the full chamber in January — and Senate Democrats immediately signaled an interest in working with any defectors who may be interested in undermining what they saw as a conservative coup.
"We will be all ears," said newly elected Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte. "We are anxious to join a coalition of moderate Republicans to move a responsible agenda forward. If they approach us, I will listen."
Sesso said it appears to him Republicans are taking a harder turn to the right.
Republicans chose as their new majority leader Bozeman lawyer Art Wittich of Bozeman, who beat out Kalispell farmer and former president pro tempore Bruce Tutvedt. Wittich's law firm has in the past worked for the secretive American Tradition Partnership that trashed Tutvedt in attack mailers — prompting Tutvedt to promise legislation going after "dark money."
Essmann dismissed the notion there will be a split in his caucus, and promised in an acceptance speech to his colleagues he will work with each of them.
"We are going to be united," Essmann said afterward to reporters.
Essmann said he would not label his leadership team as more and less conservative that the one he ousted — although a clear tone was established during the leadership elections. Republican Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, a veteran of the Capitol, backed the new leaders and said in a nominating speech that Republicans need to "sharpen" the differences with Democrats.
"We need to be much more clear on what we stand for as Republicans," Lewis said.
Essmann, along with Republican House Speaker nominee Mark Blasdel of Somers, said they look forward to sitting down with Bullock in hopes of finding a less hostile reaction than Republicans generally received from Schweitzer. They both said they look forward to receiving Bullock's budget ideas — but also promised to put conservative proposals back on Bullock's desk.
"I think everyone wants to see a productive session, and I think that means working with the administration when we can," Blasdel said. "I think there is a level of optimism."
At the same time, Republicans won't be backing down. Blasdel noted that some bills rejected by Schweitzer in 2011 were overwhelmingly approved by voters last week, such as one requiring parental notification of some teen abortions.
Bullock, in an interview, said he also wants to sit down with Blasdel and Essmann as he drafts a budget proposal and shapes his administration. He said Republicans "will find a partner in the governor's office" if they are interested in supporting ideas he likes, such as improving infrastructure in the overwhelmed eastern Montana oil field towns or giving homeowners a tax rebate.
"If their proposals are stuff I don't think Montanans sent us here to do, then we will have some challenges," Bullock said. "They will help shape what type of relationship we have as much as I will."
New Republican leaders mentioned as priorities permanent tax cuts, fewer regulations on business and smaller government.
Senate Democrats promised to promote legislation that creates jobs, such as hoping to find Republican support for resuscitating the failed measure from last session to launch more state construction projects. They also agreed in a caucus to force more disclosure on the so-called dark money that became a big topic this past election cycle, along with other favored Democratic ideas.
Other leadership positions picked Wednesday include Republican Gordon Vance of Billings for House majority leader and Austin Knudsen of Culbertson for speaker pro tempore.
Senate Republicans chose Debbie Barrett of Dillon as speaker pro tempore.
House Republicans chose Austin Knudsen of Culbertson as their speaker pro tempore.
House Democrats elected Chuck Hunter of Helena minority leader and Bryce Bennett of Missoula as caucus chair.