While, in a desperate bid to win his primary, Billings Republican Russ Fagg has swung hard to the racist right-wing as the campaign winds down, he may find some issues from his former life as a mainstream Republican challenging to escape before the June primary. None of those issues may be more challenging than his support for the CSKT Compact, a litmus test for the kind of conservative that Fagg will need to win over to win the race against Matt Rosendale.
There have been few issues more divisive in Montana Republican politics than the CSKT Water Compact, which was an incredibly lengthy, bipartisan effort to finally resolve all the water rights claims for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes under the 1855 Hellgate Treaty. It passed the Montana Legislature after prolonged and acrimonious debate in 2015, but conservative groups who oppose the treaty have dug in their heels and have worked to prevent Congressional approval.
While many Montana Republicans (including all of his primary opponents) oppose the pact, Fagg has been an enthusiastic proponent of the agreement.
One of the most active opponents of the CSKT Compact, a group called Western Montana Water Rights, highlights the problem supporting the pact could present for Fagg:
Candidates like Mr. Fagg also represent the state’s entrenched forces advocating for increased federal control over water above the state prerogatives and authority. Like others, Mr. Fagg claims that the CSKT Compact represents “conservative” and “republican” values, and that “federalism” requires that Congress just pass the CSKT Compact as is, without review. But what is conservative about federalizing the water resources in western Montana, or using its citizens water rights as collateral to avoid environmental lawsuits? The Compact needs a thorough scrub at the federal level.
Western Water Rights has also zeroed in on the fact that Fagg’s wife Karen not only lobbied for the compact but made money doing it.
The Compact is deeply unpopular among many Montana conservatives, who see the pact as an usurpation of their water rights. They’ve advanced a series of extremist arguments so persuasive to some members of the Republican caucus that even some legislators who voted for the pact now claim to oppose it.
This illustrates the challenge facing an establishment Republican like Russ Fagg. While he was out courting the endorsement of D.C. lobbyists like Denny Rehberg and Marc Racicot, the Montana Republican Party gave itself over to a far more conservative base who see almost every action by government, whether state or federal, as an intrusion into their rights. Supporting the CSKT—and financially benefiting from the effort to pass it at the state level—could badly hurt Fagg among the arch-conservative voters he’s reaching out to as the campaign winds down.
Some may argue that courting the mainstream Republican establishment and trying to appeal to the nativist wing of the party demonstrates that Fagg is a nimble politician, but I’d offer an alternative theory: he’s hoping to get the money and establishment endorsements from the old Republican Party while hoping that the people he sees as rubes in the new conservative party won’t pay attention to a record that simply doesn’t match their values.
As someone who holds out a sliver of hope that the Montana Republican Party can return to the mainstream, I’ve found the Fagg campaign deeply disappointing. From the outset, he’s been putting political considerations ahead of the truth, going so far as to unethically campaign while a judge and resorting to racist imagery to burnish his image as a conservative who is tough on crime.
It turns out he’s probably disappointing conservatives, too. With less than a month to go before the election, don’t they—and we—deserve to know just who Russ Fagg is and who he represents?