The Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer , Associated Press
In this Oct. 19, 2011 photo, Kurt Bushnell, Executive Board member of the Montana State Fireman's Association, addresses a group of fire fighters from the fire fighter's union in their support for fire jobs funding by the Federal Government in Bozeman, Mont. Bushnell, an active union leader and supporter of Democrats is running as a Republican for a state senate seat. Bozeman says he is really a conservative who identifies with the GOP despite his donations to the Montana Democratic Party and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

HELENA, Mont. — An active union leader and supporter of Democrats who is running as a Republican for a Montana state Senate seat said Friday that he is really a conservative who identifies with the GOP.

Kurt Bushnell, of Bozeman, has made political donations to the Montana Democratic Party and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester as recently as September. But the political adviser at the Montana State Fireman's Association said his support last fall for the Obama administration's jobs package and other such activities reflected his professional role, not his personal views. The group has largely supported Democrats, who are more likely to back legislation sought by the group.

"That was just support of my union brethren as a member of the union. That was just me being a firefighter speaking on behalf of my brothers and sisters," Bushnell said.

Bushnell said he has a long background personally of voting for Republicans and comes from a family of conservatives. He said his decision to run as a Republican is an honest one and was an easy choice.

Bushnell said he believes there are too many government regulations restricting small businesses like the one his wife runs, although he stopped short of specifically blaming Democrats for the problem. But Bushnell said he does support moves by Republican legislators to thwart state implementation of federal health care reform.

The Montana Republican Party isn't buying it.

The GOP said it suspects Bushnell and the Democrats are trying to steal a conservative Senate district from the Republicans — by running as a Republican. Montana does not require voters to register with a party affiliation.

"If these kind of childish games continue I think a lot of people will take another look at voter registration by party," said GOP spokesman Bowen Greenwood.

Greenwood said that Bushnell has never donated to the GOP or bought a ticket to a Republican event. He said most GOP legislative candidates were gathering Friday for a winter kickoff event in Billings, but Bushnell never registered for it.

The Montana Democratic Party, to which Bushnell has donated more than $1,000, sought to stay out of the fray.

"This is a Republican primary between Republican candidates. For our part, we're focused on electing Democrats," said spokesman Chris Saeger.

Bushnell is in a primary battle with former House Speaker Scott Sales, who is running despite his wife's recent guilty plea for embezzling.