HELENA — In his unsuccessful bid to be elected as Montana’s governor last year, Republican Greg Gianforte convened town halls, held press conferences and publicized his travels. Months later, he has shifted his strategy as he campaigns for the state’s only congressional seat left vacant after Ryan Zinke became the U.S. Interior Secretary in March.
Gianforte is maintaining a relatively low profile that keeps him out of the reach of Democratic operatives and protesters who have shown up at Republican events in recent months. His Democratic challenger, Rob Quist, has criticized Gianforte for not holding more events ahead of the May 25 special election.
Instead of appearing at large rallies or holding town hall meetings, Gianforte has relied on television ads to get his message out while presiding over coffee klatches, chamber of commerce mixers and unpublicized gatherings. While he has spoken one-on-one with news outlets, he has yet to hold the kind of media events that were common during his run for governor. It’s a strategy that’s been seen across the U.S. as GOP members of Congress avoid town halls and constituent meetings to keep their distance from protesters angry about President Donald Trump’s agenda.
“Our only guess why he doesn’t want any interaction with us is that he’s going to get push back,” said Robbie Gammack, a member of a nascent network of progressives called Big Sky Rising.
Shane Scanlon, Gianforte’s spokesman, disputed assertions he has avoided the public.
“He’s been talking and listening to Montanans about fighting against federal overreach and standing up to the special interests and bringing accountability to Washington,” Scanlon said. “We’re not concerned about protesters.”
The House election is a different race with a different set of dynamics from the governor’s race. Gianforte is campaigning for an open seat held by Republicans for two decades — and not trying to oust a popular Democratic incumbent, Gov. Steve Bullock.
Quist, a well-known musician, has hit the road hard with his populist message, campaigning in 40 of the state’s 56 counties for town halls on health care, roundtables with veterans and rallies with supporters. He will need the energy of his party’s base and its activism to fuel his campaign.
Gianforte, though, is “sitting in the catbird’s seat,” according to Montana State University political scientist Dave Parker, who says it’s not crucial for him to build more name recognition after last year’s lengthy and expensive gubernatorial campaign.
“What additional gain is doing all that (now) aside from putting himself at risk from trackers or somebody videoing him making a gaffe?” Parker said.
An independent Republican group has done much of the heavy hitting for Gianforte, pledging $750,000 for anti-Quist television advertising.
Quist has also been sidetracked by having to explain why he only recently resolved three state tax liens because of unpaid taxes, plus revelations of bad debts and soured business relationships. He’s blamed high medical costs for his financial troubles.
The closer-than-expected outcome of another special congressional election in Kansas earlier this week could worry Republicans. The national party is dispatching Donald Trump Jr. to boost the Gianforte campaign with fundraisers next week in Billings, Bozeman, Hamilton and Kalispell.
“The special election could be a time for voters to vent their anger,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College in Helena. “You’ve seen more and more protests in Montana and more energy on the Democratic side than we’ve seen in a long time, if ever.”
In January, an estimated 10,000 people converged in Helena for a women’s rally. A week later, hundreds of environmentalists packed the Capitol rotunda to voice concerns the Trump administration might limit access to public lands.
More than 20 demonstrators showed up at the airport in Bozeman in February to greet Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Days later, he abruptly rescheduled a visit to the Capitol but said it had nothing to do with the hundreds of protesters awaiting him.
While Gianforte has no obligation to meet with potential constituents, critics want to him to be more available.
“If you want to represent Montanans, you need to go out and meet them, even those who don’t like you,” said Ben Lamb, a lobbyist on public lands policy.