The Montana Republican Party elects its leaders

House and Senate Republicans Wednesday elected Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell and Senator Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton to lead their respective parliamentary groups, ushering in a 2023 legislative session in which the GOP will enjoy its first two-thirds majority since Montana’s draft modern constitution of 1972.

“Smile everyone, we run the place,” said Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who chaired the House of Representatives meeting to begin proceedings.

In the lower chamber, Republicans voted for Governor 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 political goals and promote the well-being of the state.

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

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

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

The 2023 legislative period begins on January 2nd. The Legislative Chambers as a whole will take binding votes on the Speaker and President at the beginning of the session, although such votes are usually superficial.

In the House of Representatives, lawmakers elected Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, Majority Leader over Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, and elected Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, as Speaker Pro Tempore over Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings . After reviewing 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-Kaskade; and Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, as whips, lieutenants in the party leadership working to put votes in order.

In the Senate, Republicans elected Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, Majority Leader over Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel; Senator Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, as Speaker Pro Tempore over Senator 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 secretly and are not published.

A significant challenge for Republican leaders — an ongoing one that will become even more important with a 102-seat majority in the legislature — is to bind party factions into a political coalition without provoking internal backlash.

The Democrats also elected their leaders on Wednesday. In the House of Representatives, former Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena fended off a challenge from Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, who called for the caucus to be louder on issues before the Legislature.

House Democrats also elected MPs 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 leader.

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

Mara Silvers and Eric Dietrich contributed coverage.