HELENA – Republicans see a golden opportunity to retake a governor’s mansion after nearly eight years of living under the shadow of Brian Schweitzer — but first the party has to pick a nominee from a crowded and increasingly contentious primary battle.
Former congressman Rick Hill, considered by many in the party to be the front-runner for the nomination heading into Tuesday’s primary, is being targeted by the other candidates. At the same time, the candidates are getting into a war with increasingly large job creation promises as they each tout economic plans based on fewer regulations and less taxes.
Attacks on the perceived front-runner threatened to derail Hill from his familiar GOP message of less government regulation and fewer legal barriers to business development.
Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton wrapped up the campaign aggressively going after Hill, arguing that the former congressman has picked up too much “baggage” over the years to be able to beat presumptive Democratic nominee and current attorney general Steve Bullock. Stapleton has been airing a hard-hitting television advertisement — mostly paid out of his own pocket — that paints Hill as a former insurance industry executive sympathetic to “Obamacare” and who once advocated for a tax increase.
Hill is denouncing the ad as a “desperate” move by a losing candidate to gain traction. Still, the attack forced Hill had to dip into his own coffers and air his own advertisement to defend core GOP attributes at a very late time in the election — and at a time Hill would clearly rather talk about other issues.
“Rick Hill is a strong conservative. He’s never voted for a tax increase. And always opposed Obamacare,” the ad said.
Meanwhile, Bullock has been coasting toward his party’s nomination and stockpiling a much larger war chest for the general election battle.
Hill, in an interview, said he is enjoying himself despite the rough back-and-forth.
“This has really been a fun campaign. The people I am running against are interesting people. We all get along well, and it has been really enjoyable,” Hill said. “I have really had a good campaign.”
Hill said he believes he has been able to stick with his core message of more jobs — a theme of nearly every candidate for office this cycle. The 66-year-old Republican, who left his House seat before the 2000 election due to an eyesight issue he now says is corrected, is promising 30,000 to 40,000 jobs created in the state during his first term.
“Now only do we want to produce more jobs, we want to produce jobs that pay well,” Hill said.
Even though Republican-led legislators have been watering down Montana environmental laws since the 1990s, each time with the promise that it would lead to more natural resource development, Hill said his plan will go further with the administrative rule-making process. He said the job creation can be done without seeking a change in the state’s constitutional environmental protections or without any changes in federal land management policies.
With stiff competition, Hill has never put the race away in the minds of donors or Republican party faithful.
Stapleton has been telling primary voters he has the better profile to beat Bullock in a tough matchup, and courting many of the same Main Street Republicans as Hill. And that is the point of his attack ad, he says, pointing out to Republicans the “baggage” on Hill that Democrats certainly will roll out during the general election.
“It is time for new leadership in our party,” said Stapleton, a 43-year-old Billings investment adviser. “It is the new generation that has a passion around the issues, the debt and the financial issues. We are the ones we are really confronting the biggest issues.”
Stapleton’s economic plan is based upon a statewide 95-mil property tax reduction. He wrote last year that he thinks it will produce 18,000 jobs in the state over a four-year term. Hill, whose plane is more centered on unrolling regulations, doubled Stapleton’s promise.
Then earlier this month Neil Livingstone, a former Washington D.C. security consultant and television commentator, said he could create as many as 100,000 jobs with his plan. Livingstone is the only other candidate airing a significant statewide television campaign to woo GOP voters who are still getting to know the candidates.
Ken Miller, a former state senator from Laurel, has been making inroads into the tea party and social conservative crowd and seeking to reach voters with an aggressive yard sign campaign — but without a TV push.
He wrapped up the week leading into the primary by campaigning at “freedom rallies” with tea party favorite Sharon Angle of Nevada at his side.
Others in the race that have so far failed to garner as much attention, or collected as much money to get out a message, are anti-wolf activist Bob Fanning of Pray and Former Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch. Choteau County commissioner James O’Hara has not raised much money, but has based his campaign around a unique effort to put hand-painted campaign signs in each county that portray the local courthouse.
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