GOP caucus stirs range of opinions

By John S. Adams
Published February 7th 2008 in Great Falls Tribune
HELENA — Montana Republicans have spoken — or a small fraction of them have — and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is their man in 2008.

But not all Republicans are happy with the outcome of Tuesday's closed-caucus presidential nominating process, whereby only 1,817 Republican Party leaders were allowed to vote. Many readers logged on to the Tribune's online forums before and after the caucus to express their confusion and frustration with the unfamiliar — and in some commenters' minds, undemocratic — process.

Tribune forum user "soapie," a self-identified Romney supporter, was "very disappointed" at not being able to cast a vote: "I simply do not understand the Republican delegates taking it upon themselves to do what they are doing! I bet we are the only state in the union 'voting' this way. I DO NOT LIKE IT AT ALL! The sad thing is, the general public didn't really realize what was honestly happening until this past week. It's enough to make me vote for Barack Obama in June!!!"

Other readers expressed confusion about the impact the caucus would have on the primary election scheduled for June 3. Montana law requires that a presidential preference primary be held every four years on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in June for both major political parties and any other parties that meet the requirements.

On Tuesday, as 1,630 of the more than 1,800 Republicans eligible to vote gathered in each of Montana's 56 counties to join in the excitement of taking part in the Super Tuesday primary caucus, some Republicans felt left out in the cold.

Rob Richie is the executive director of FairVote, the Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit group that promotes fair elections. Richie said the sense of disenfranchisement expressed by some Republicans is a symptom of the potential blowback of holding a closed or limited nominating process. Richie said it might be enough to cause some people to stay home Nov. 4 because they don't feel connected to their party's nominee.

"I think it's in the parties' interest to be as democratic as possible in how they do things because it brings more people in," Richie said. "But the parties themselves can also have an interest in making sure a nominee reflects their interests. I think there is this ongoing tension between a party's right to do this, and the public's desire to make them choose the nominees democratically."

Montana Republican party Chairman Erik Iverson said Tuesday that he recognized that there were some Republicans who felt slighted, but he said the caucus achieved the party's chief objectives of making Montana relevant in the nominating process, building the party's activist base and raising money.

"What we're seeing here is a movement," Iverson said as the final caucus results were being tallied Tuesday evening. "We're seeing a new resurgence in the Montana Republican Party. Out of several hundred thousand Republicans, to have a couple hundred folks who may have been confused about how to vote or what the caucus rules were, that's not bad for the first time out."

Montana GOP Director Chris Wilcox pointed out that in the past, the party's 25 delegates were not bound to vote for the winner of June's presidential primary. In other words, even if the state voted one way, the delegates were free to vote another way at the national convention. So in that regard, Wilcox said, the caucus system increased the number of Montanans who have an actual say in the nominating process by 6,000 percent.

Chris Carter, the Montana GOP's new spokesman, said his office has received some calls from angry Republicans. He said he reminds them that there will still be a primary election on June 3, and they'll still get to have their voices heard.

According to Bowen Greenwood, spokesman for Secretary of State Brad Johnson, any votes cast in the June 3 Republican presidential primary will be counted, even though none of the state's delegates are tied to the results.

"There will be a primary, and Republican presidential candidates can still qualify for it," Greenwood said.

However it's conceivable that by that time Mitt Romney, who is lagging far behind Arizona Sen. John McCain in delegates in the race for the Republican nomination, will be out of the race. That would mean that Montana primary voters would likely end up selecting a different nominee then the one their party's 25 delegates are bound to vote for come September.

If Romney is out of the race by the September GOP convention, he can release his 25 Montana delegates to the eventual nominee, or to any other candidates left standing.

It's a confusing and, in some cases, frustrating situation for some Republicans. But Iverson said the experiment was well worth it.

"Listen, this wasn't a perfect process," he said. "It was the first time we did it. But I think the results speak for themselves."