Entering the final weeks before Election Day and with early voting underway, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte are crisscrossing the state in an effort to rally voters and energize their campaign messages to sway undecided voters.
By the time polling places open Nov. 8, and based on the pattern of the past three election cycles, scores of Montana voters will have already cast their ballots — the secretary of state’s office last week mailed out 297,000 absentee ballots.
But that hasn’t slowed the momentum of either campaign as a flurry of television and radio ads hit the airwaves, and with recent polls projecting an even closer race than expected, the candidates are ratcheting up their rhetoric.
As a political newcomer, Gianforte has branded himself as “a businessman, not a career politician,” relying on his meteoric rise in the tech industry to promote high-wage job growth in Montana to craft a core message that appeals to Republicans across the state.
Five years ago, he sold his software company RightNow Technologies to Oracle for $1.8 billion, and his background as a successful entrepreneur has dominated his campaign theme.
Gianforte has been disciplined in his refrain that, with a visionary leader, Montana is ripe for job growth in new, high-paying sectors, and he has pounded the drum of deregulation as a means of economic prosperity at campaign stops across the state.
Recently, Gianforte began airing ads touting his business acumen and his commitment to dispatching burdensome industrial regulations and taxes, and last week he made a series of get-out-the-vote appearances with other Republican statewide candidates, including one in Kalispell.
Meanwhile, a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research for Lee Newspapers shows Bullock is ahead of his Republican challenger 47 percent to 45 percent, which is within the margin of error, while 6 percent of voters remain undecided.
As one of only three Democratic governors in rural states, Bullock is touting his record of ushering key legislation through a splintered Republican caucus, which last session was divided into blocs of conservatives and moderates.
Under Bullock’s leadership, the 2015 Legislature expanded Medicaid, tightened campaign finance laws, passed a water rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, invested in workforce development and education, and maintained a $300 million rainy day fund, although that figure is projected to be diminished entering the 2017 Legislative Session.
He’s also cast himself as a protector of public lands and stream access, repeatedly hammering Gianforte for his involvement in a disputed, but long since settled, land easement on the entrepreneur’s Bozeman property.
Gianforte has dismissed Bullock’s account of the dispute, calling it a governmental surveying mistake that needed to be corrected, and recently he publicly invited the governor to come fishing on the property.
Still, the attacks by the Bullock campaign aligned with efforts to portray Gianforte as an out-of-touch millionaire trying to buy the election — Gianforte has spent $3.1 million of his own money in his bid for the governor’s seat.
Gianforte also said he did not support transferring ownership of federal lands to the state, but he did see room for transferring some 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.
Bullock is a staunch opponent to the transfer of management authority to the state, calling it an untenable arrangement that would result in the loss of access.
Bullock also championed the state’s job growth, business climate and low unemployment rate under his leadership, painting a bright picture of the state’s economy.
“We have made great steps in the last three-and-a-half years, but we still have long ways to go,” he said. “We have created 20,000 new jobs, our wages are the sixth-fastest in the country and our manufacturing sector is growing at twice the rate of the national average.”
But Gianforte said job growth doesn’t translate to high wages, saying he would fix Montana’s low wages by bringing new, innovative high-wage jobs into communities, promoting the growth of the tech industry instead of raising the minimum wage, which he said “actually reduces employment opportunities in our society.”
“I am more concerned about maximum wages, not minimum wages,” Gianforte said.
Rob Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, said neither of the campaigns has significantly tailored its respective tactics, nor does he expect them to do so at this late point in the race.
Bullock enjoys the advantage of incumbency during a presidential election, and Montana’s gubernatorial race is one of 12 governor’s races this year.
“The race has tightened a bit as more people become more familiar with Gianforte and his message, but I would say it is still an uphill battle for the challenger,” Saldin said. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest that Bullock is in panic mode, but certainly you are always concerned if you’re a Democrat in Montana.”
Even though Gianforte continues to air more radio and television ads, Saldin said they have a diminishing return at a certain point.
“I suspect that people are kind of filtering back to their partisan and ideological homes and falling into line at this point,” he said.
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