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Montana Republican Party chooses its leaders

by Arren Kimbel-Sannit Montana Free Press
| November 18, 2022 7:00 AM

House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday selected Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell and Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton as the leaders of their respective caucuses, cueing up a 2023 legislative session in which the GOP will enjoy the first two-thirds supermajority since Montana drafted its modern Constitution in 1972.

“Smile everybody, we’re running the place,” said Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who presided over the House caucus, to kick off the proceedings.

In the lower chamber, Republicans voted for Regier as Speaker of the House over Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta. And in the Senate, Ellsworth emerged as President over Matt Regier’s father, Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell. Both leaders pledged to lead the expanded Republican majority as a united front to achieve conservative policy goals and advance the well-being of the state.

“We can all coalesce around the foundation that makes up the Republican brand: That is freedom and liberty and respect for the people of Montana,” Matt Regier said in his pre-vote pitch to the caucus Wednesday. “This session, we are all going to take some very impactful votes, but arguably none will be bigger than the vote you’re going to take here this morning. This vote for leadership will determine how effective the Montana House of Representatives is.”

Ellsworth also struck a collaborative tone, telling Senate Republicans, “We all have the same agenda.”

“It’s really about what we did last session, which was have a good session, no surprises, no games, everybody gets an opportunity and just fairness,” Ellsworth later told Montana Free Press of his appeal to lawmakers. We did that under Sen. [Mark] Blasdel, the last president, and that’s all I wanted to do, is continue that same legacy.”

The 2023 legislative session begins Jan. 2. Legislative chambers will take binding votes as a whole on speaker and president at the beginning of the session, though such votes are usually perfunctory.

In the House, lawmakers re-elected Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, as majority leader over Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, and chose Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, as Speaker Pro Tempore over Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings. After winnowing a list of several nominees, the caucus selected Reps. Brandon Ler, R-Sidney; Terry Moore, R-Billings; Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan; Neil Duram, R-Eureka; Steve Gist, R-Cascade; and Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, as whips, lieutenants in party leadership who work to get votes in order.

In the Senate, Republicans selected Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, as majority leader over Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel; Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, as Speaker Pro Tempore over Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings; and Usher along with Sens. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings; Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux; and Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, as whips.

Votes for leadership positions are conducted by secret ballot and not made public.

One significant challenge for Republican leaders — a perennial one that will become even more important with a 102-seat majority in the Legislature — is to stitch party factions into a policymaking coalition without provoking internal backlash.

Democrats also caucused to select their leaders Wednesday. In the House, previous minority leader Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena fended off a challenge from Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, who called for the caucus to be more vocal on issues before the Legislature.

House Democrats also selected Reps. Derek Harvey, D-Butte; Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning; and Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, as whips, and Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, as Democratic caucus chair.

The nominees for minority leader and whips in the Senate Democratic caucus were all unopposed. Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, will be minority leader. Sens. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, and Susan Webber, D-Browning, will be whips.

Mara Silvers and Eric Dietrich contributed reporting.