- Associated Press - Thursday, June 19, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A Republican committee gave initial approval Thursday to a proposal to close future primary elections to prevent voters outside the party from influencing the outcome.

Following the June 3 primary, members of the GOP’s conservative wing complained that Democrats crossed party lines to bolster the chances of moderate Republicans in some contested races.

On Thursday, a platform committee at the state Republican convention in Billings passed a resolution sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Essman of Billings that would limit future Republican primaries to party members only.

The proposal comes as moderate and conservative Republicans maneuver for position within a party that holds few statewide offices.

Supporter Matthew Monforton, a candidate for House District 69 in Bozeman, said the change was needed so “liberal Republicans” don’t benefit from outside support.

But Rep. Rob Cook of Conrad, who prevailed over a more conservative challenger on June 3, criticized the proposal as “ludicrous” and said it threatens to isolate the party from voters.

“It’s like the game all losers play. Rather than admit you might have some problems with your message, you redefine the rules to protect the existing power structure,” Cook said.

Monforton said the closure of future primaries could be accomplished either through legislative action or a lawsuit, based on the premise that Republican voters have the right to choose Republican candidates. He predicted limited success in the Legislature, due to anticipated opposition from some lawmakers and the potential for Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, to veto any bill that passed.

That leaves a lawsuit in federal court as the most viable option, Monforton said.

“The issue our party has to decide is are we going to be the party of Lincoln and Reagan or a party of the teachers’ unions,” he said. “Open primaries infringe on the First Amendment political rights of political parties to associate with their own voters.”

Monforton said a similar effort was successful in Idaho, following frustration over Democrats and union members being told to vote for moderate Republicans in the primary, then switching their support to Democratic candidates in the general election.

The resolution is up for a final vote by GOP representatives on Saturday.

The committee that approved the closed primary proposal also supported a resolution from Essman to overhaul the office of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Essman wants to establish a multiple-member commission that would serve as an independent body to address alleged campaign violations and related issues. Currently, those matters are largely handled by just one person.