Name: Greg Gianforte
Party affiliation: Republican
Occupation: Founder, RightNow Technologies
Millionaire entrepreneur Greg Gianforte’s meteoric rise in the tech industry and his platform promoting high-wage job growth in Montana have helped him craft a core message that appeals to Republicans across the state.
His campaign has been disciplined in its refrain that Montana is ripe for job growth in new, high-paying sectors, and Gianforte has pounded the drum of economic prosperity with metronomic regularity at campaign stops across the state. At the June 7 primary election, the active pro-jobs campaign helped him win the vote count, 110,077 votes to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s 109,568.
The message seems to be resounding with GOP leaders, but a curious uptick in votes for a primary opponent helped lift Gianforte’s Republican challenger in the contested race, offsetting Gianforte’s overall take and stumping political observers.
Terry Nelson, the relatively unknown Ravalli County planning director, earned 23 percent of the vote, leaving some question as to whether the GOP base is unified behind its top candidate.
Conversely, Bullock, the incumbent, earned 91 percent of his party’s vote, proving that he is still popular among Democrats and may even be nudging moderate Republicans away from the Gianforte ticket.
Rob Saldin, political science professor at the University of Montana, said he was surprised by Nelson’s surge, which suggests the Bullock campaign’s attacks against Gianforte could be finding some measure of success, or perhaps Gianforte isn’t gaining the name recognition he needs after months of campaign stops.
“The Gianforte campaign has to be a little bit concerned and confused about what happened there,” Saldin said. “Gianforte is not very well known and hasn’t built a really high political profile around Montana, but he has been out there pretty prominently for many months. It makes me wonder whether some of the attacks that the Democrats are been launching might have had some influence on moderate Republicans.”
Still, Gianforte handily won the primary and will head toward the general election in November as the top Republican candidate, while a slate of contentious issues loom on the horizon, giving Gianforte and his Democratic rival plenty to spar over.
Here’s a roundup of some of the issues that set the candidates for governor apart.
During the 2015 Montana Legislature, the Bullock administration’s $150 million infrastructure bill was the final issue before lawmakers, who adjourned after failing to pass the building-projects measure by a single Republican vote in a divided House – this even after Bullock and a bloc of Republican and Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate crafted a compromise proposal.
But some hardline GOP leaders said the idea that the bill represented compromise was a fantasy, and Gianforte labeled Bullock stubborn for opposing GOP proposals by staking a position that Gianforte called “my way or no highway.”
“The governor had four years to get infrastructure funding done,” Gianforte said, adding that he would help unify what has become a divided Republican Party. “Regardless of the makeup of the Legislature, as governor, I plan to lead. Let’s get legislators in a room together and find common ground and move forward. This is what we do in the business community.”
Some Republicans balked last session at using bonds to borrow the money needed to finance state projects. Gianforte said he had “no philosophical opposition” to using bonds, but said he preferred using cash to pay for a host of projects he has yet to identify. He wants to start with at least $100 million in infrastructure funding.
Montana’s fight to protect public lands and stream access had already entered the political fray as a hot-button issue when a liberal blogger unearthed information about a 2009 lawsuit by East Gallatin LLC, a company registered to Gianforte’s wife, Susan, which sought to remove an easement in Bozeman that provided public access along the East Gallatin River.
The suit was resolved after Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials visited the site, leading to trail and fence upgrades that helped steer users away from the Gianfortes’ property while maintaining stream access.
Democrats seized on the opportunity to challenge Gianforte’s commitment to public lands and river access, prompting the Gianforte campaign to push back with a radio ad defending claims he denied access to fishing on his property.
Gianforte said he did not support transferring ownership of federal lands to the state, but he did see room for transferring lands management.
“I am opposed to the transfer of federal lands to state ownership. However, I do support pilot projects in certain areas where we could have more local management of federal lands. Too many of our forests are beetle killed tinderboxes that go up in smoke every summer,” he said.
The 2015 Montana Legislature passed sweeping campaign finance legislation to require the disclosure of all donors to any independent group spending money on state-level elections.
The bipartisan Montana Disclose Act was aimed at ending the flood of “dark money,” or spending by nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donor sources, which has plagued recent elections.
Bullock hailed passage of the bill as a watershed moment for campaign finance reform after teaming up with Republican state Sen. Duane Ankney to usher it through the Senate and the House.
Gianforte said while he agrees with the spirit of transparency in elections, the Disclose Act encroaches on free speech.
“I believe that we need transparency in elections. However, we need to protect free speech,” he said. “I’m not convinced that the Disclose Act gets that balance right.”
Gianforte has unveiled a tax plan to tamp down on government spending and reduce income taxes, a step he says will allow Montanans to invest money in growing the state’s economy.
Called the “406 Tax Relief Plan,” it would eliminate the business equipment tax in four years, demand zero increase in overall state spending and have zero sales tax, and simplify income taxes to lower the maximum rate from 6.9 percent to 6 percent, he said.
“The current governor vetoed three tax relief bills last session, and apparently believes that anyone making more than $17,000 in taxable income is too rich for tax relief,” Gianforte said. “The business equipment tax is a wet blanket on business expansion in Montana.”
Gianforte has repeatedly put President Barack Obama’s environmental rules plan in his crosshairs, saying he wants to “wrangle up” the Clean Power Plan if he takes office.
“I call it the costly power plan,” Gianforte said. “If enacted the state will lose over 7,000 jobs and every Montana utility bill will go up close to 20 percent. Sure there is room for renewables, but 40 percent comes from Colstrip, (it) comes from coal. It will be catastrophic, particularly in eastern Montana.”
Gianforte has come repeatedly under firGianforte has come repeatedly under fire for his social conservatism as Democrats drum into political messaging the Bozeman businessman’s charitable donations to groups that oppose gay marriage, seek to ban or restrict abortions, promote Creationism, and denounce evolution.
But his foundation, the Gianforte Family Charitable Trust, has given far more to faith-based schools than to advocacy groups, and Gianforte has largely dismissed the notion that his personal faith and beliefs have any bearing on his principles as governor.
Still, a number of donations have been political in nature, including donations to organizations opposed to LGBT policies. As a number of communities pass non-discrimination ordinances to expand rights to citizens who identify with that community, Gianforte has taken heat for his social conservatism.
The Whitefish City Council recently passed a non-discrimination ordinance that extends unmet civil rights protections to residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and Gianforte clarified his position on rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“I’ve been very clear. I believe that discrimination is wrong,” he said. “When I was in business we hired people of all faiths, races, and orientations. If the Legislature sends me an NDO that protects people from discrimination and also protects religious liberty, I will sign it.”