WHITEFISH – Any Montanan in denial about another campaign season beginning might have been overwhelmed in the Flathead Valley last week, as the top two Republican candidates for governor campaigned in earnest, holding separate fundraising events.
Neil Livingstone and his running mate, state Sen. Ryan Zinke, staged a party on the water at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake last Thursday, where the two touted their strength by noting they ranked second in a recent poll of Montana Republicans’ preferences for governor, despite only launching their campaign the previous weekend.
“We were in No. 2 before we had even officially announced,” Livingstone said. “We’re in second place before we even start because Montanans want something different.”
Livingstone also took a shot at the current Republican frontrunner, former Congressman Rick Hill.
“He should have run away with this if he was going to do so,” Livingstone, a security and anti-terrorism consultant, said.
The following day, Hill was making the rounds in Kalispell at Sykes’, following a tour of the Troy mine with Sens. Bruce Tutvedt and Chas Vincent, and a visit to Plum Creek in Columbia Falls. Though Hill said he was skeptical of any polls this far out from the election in November of next year, he conceded the GOP gubernatorial primary in Montana could come down to a race between him and Livingstone.
“Zinke and Livingstone have both made it clear that they’re going to put a lot of money into this race,” Hill said. “They don’t have as much support in Montana yet.”
The poll the candidates referred to was released by Public Policy Polling earlier this month, showing Hill as the choice for governor of 35 percent of Montana Republicans, with Livingstone behind him at 15 percent. Among the other candidates, Billings state Sen. Jeff Essmann received 11 percent; former state Sen. Ken Miller of Laurel received 6 percent; Zinke received 2 percent and former Billings state Sen. Corey Stapleton and Choteau County Commissioner Jim O’Hara each received 1 percent.
Recent campaign reports also show Hill in front when it comes to fundraising, with nearly $200,000 in the bank, as of June 30. Democrat Steve Bullock has roughly the same amount, though he has not yet announced whether he intends to run for reelection as attorney general or to succeed Brian Schweitzer as governor.
As evidence of the race’s early stage, some of those Republicans in attendance at the Livingstone-Zinke event in Whitefish said they supported Hill, while others complimented Livingstone’s business success and viewed his lack of experience holding public office as an asset.
“Incremental change isn’t going to work; we’re going to have to take a giant step forward to get where Montana should be,” Zinke said as he introduced Livingstone. “If we’re going to make the type of changes that we’re talking about, we’re going to have to hire a CEO.”
As governor, Livingstone said he would seek to abolish corporate income tax in Montana, eliminate the business equipment tax, further reduce workers’ compensation rates and pursue tort reform.
Hill, on the other hand, talked chiefly about expanding natural resource development across the state, and came away from his visit to Lincoln County in support of developing mines near Libby.
“I don’t think we can look to a future that says we can get all these construction jobs back in the short term,” Hill said. “We’ve got to be looking at natural resource jobs if we’re going to replace those lost construction jobs.”
“That’s where we have a natural competitive advantage,” Hill added. “You’ve got to be aggressive in terms of how you do that.”
Hill took his own shot at Zinke, saying the Whitefish senator was at odds with this approach.
“He has been pretty much an antagonist to resource development,” Hill said. “Zinke is the poster boy of the (Montana) Conservation Voters group.”
The critical comments are only likely to heighten as the next year’s primary elections approach, and it remains to be seen how long candidates can maintain a sense of humor in the face of every campaign’s trials. Though as of last week, Zinke still managed a joke at his own expense, noting that upon launching their campaign in Helena, he had dinged a supporter’s car with the campaign bus.
In Whitefish, it was clear Zinke had recovered from the misstep, telling those present, “and I promise to set the parking brake.”
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