Recent polls show former U.S. Congressman Rick Hill leading the pack in a crowded Republican gubernatorial primary, with former state Sen. Ken Miller of Laurel trailing at a considerable distance in second place.
Both Hill and Miller were in the Flathead Valley last week and each stopped by the Beacon office to provide campaign updates. Miller said he has been on the campaign trail for 16 months, while Hill has been scurrying around the state ever since he announced his candidacy just over a year ago.
Miller said he’s adhering to a strategy that helped him become the first Republican senator from the traditionally Democrat-heavy Laurel district in 1995: pounding the pavement and “talking to people.”
“That’s exactly the same plan I’m using on a statewide level now,” he said. “That’s why we started 16 months ago.”
A recent Public Policy Polling survey shows Hill leading the nine-candidate Republican gubernatorial field by a wide margin with 37 percent of the vote, while 35 percent of Montana voters fall into the “someone else/undecided” category. Miller is second at 10 percent, followed by state Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings at 5 percent and former state Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch at 4 percent.
Security and anti-terrorism consultant Neil Livingstone receives 3 percent of the vote, as does Choteau County Commissioner Jim O’Hara, while Corey Stapleton is at 2 percent and Bob Fanning has 1 percent.
“Thirty-seven percent of the vote in a nine-way race – that’s pretty strong standing,” Hill said.
Miller points to a poll commissioned by the Montana Chamber of Commerce in mid-November and reported by Politico last week. In that poll, Hill leads Miller only 29 to 15 percent, with 40 percent undecided.
“He has more name recognition,” Miller said of Hill. “But we have strong grassroots support and infrastructure.”
The gubernatorial race should pick up intensity after official filing in January, with candidates likely increasing their fundraising and campaigning efforts. The winner of the Republican primary is expected to face off against Steve Bullock, the current state attorney general and the heavy Democratic favorite. Term limits prevent Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, from running for reelection.
Public Policy Polling recently released a survey showing that if Hill gets the Republican nomination he would narrowly beat Bullock 39 to 38 percent, while all other Republicans lose by at least 9 percentage points. In its November ranking, Politico pegged Montana’s governor race as the second-most competitive in the nation behind West Virginia’s.
Miller and Hill are both touting the popular Republican battle cry of less government, from natural resource development to education to daily life. Hill met with Northwest Montana school superintendents last week to discuss his preference for eliminating tenure and instituting merit-based pay, ideas that he said were met with “mixed responses.”
“Those are just components of the overall solution,” Hill said in an interview, adding that he believes Montana’s education system suffers from burdensome “micromanagement” and an overemphasis on “inputs instead of outcomes.”
In an interview, Miller also spoke at length about education, echoing some of the same themes as Hill about Montana’s education system needing more local control and less bureaucratic management. Miller is an advocate of charter schools and tax credits for families that choose homeschooling. With charter schools, Miller said local officials and boards would have the final word in school affairs.
“Right down the line they’d be making the decisions,” he said.
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