03/26/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated May 26, 2014

The Tea Party Rattles the Cups in Montana

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

When is a Democrat a Republican? In Montana, it seems, where you can be either one if you say you are, even if you are not. This spring, conservatives linked to the Tea Party filed as Democrats in June primaries for the Senate and State Assembly in at least eight legislative districts. Several of the candidates were removed from the ballot on March 18 for failure to file required business disclosures, including a proper address. One such candidate was "between homes" and living in a motel; another was homeless and did not have a telephone.

At the local level, the dust-up is yet another bizarre result of the bitter fight among the "real Republicans" in Montana for the soul of their party. The Tea Party insurgents have likewise targeted Republican incumbents in 16 legislative primaries -- a reflection of the bitter split between the party's moderate and conservative factions that continue to play out on the national level.

At a deeper level, though, the battle is for the integrity of the electoral process -- are our candidates who they say they are?

"It appears there's an organized effort to file Tea Party Republicans as Democrats," Montana State Democratic campaign director Lauren Caldwell told the Great Falls Tribune last week. "It is sort of dirty politics at its worst. The goal appears to be to deceive voters."

The Tea Party challengers say that they have been so alienated from the Montana Republican Party that their only option is to run as conservative Democrats. Saunders County conservative Terry Caldwell (no relation to Lauren) is running against a traditional Democratic candidate in House District 14. "I don't know what to say about it other than there is a lot of good people out there that are conservative Democrats that need representing, " he says, "so I'd like to do my best to represent them." Like the other conservative challengers, Caldwell was unable to name a single plank in the Democratic platform he supports.

Another candidate in the Democratic primary, Gerald Joseph Cuvillier, is actually a former Saunders County Republican committee vice-chair who feels that most Republicans are too liberal for him. Harry Pennington, running as a Democrat in Senate District 32 until his name was removed, regularly posts Impeach Obama links on his Facebook page. ("Every person who voted for Barack Hussein Obama is a traitor to everything American and should be treated as such.")

In House District 66, Kathy Hollenback is running against Denise Hayman, a Democratic candidate. Hollenback has in the past supported Tea Party candidates, and in her campaign forms lists as her address and phone number the same one used by the Gallatin County Republican precinct chairman. Asked about her opponent, Hayman said, " Montanans need to make sure elections have integrity. They need to look beyond the labels so they know what the candidate stands for."

Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps similarly says he would prefer such candidates run on the philosophy of the Republican Party as bona-fide Republicans. But, he adds, "This sort of thing isn't new. You are a Democrat if you ran on the Democratic ticket. That's who you are. It is what it is."

As Humpty Dumpty told Alice, the question is whether words master us, or we master them. Politically speaking Montana's clear mountain waters are increasingly muddied. Little wonder that voters feel increasingly dismayed with the choices presented to them at the polling-place. If nothing is as it appears, how can the democratic process function?

"I don't want to go among mad people," said Alice. "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cheshire Cat. "We're all mad here."