HELENA — As the race to become Montana’s next governor has tightened in its final weeks, bombastic rhetoric has all but overshadowed Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock’s and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte’s very different visions for the future of the state.
Bullock, the state’s attorney general before being elected in 2012 as one of only 18 Democratic governors in the U.S., frames himself as a coalition builder and a champion of protecting public access to lands and waterways.
Gianforte, a technology entrepreneur who sold his software business to Oracle for $1.8 billion, pledges in his first run for political office to bring high paying jobs to the state and cut business-choking regulations.
But when voters go to the polls on Tuesday, what they may remember are the accusations of incompetence, malfeasance and law-breaking each campaign has lobbed at the other and which has intensified in recent weeks. A Lee Newspapers of Montana-commissioned poll last month found that the race was essentially a dead heat between Bullock and Gianforte.
The two candidates said in separate recent interviews with The Associated Press that they wish the campaign had focused more on the issues — but continued to attack each other.
“I underestimated, frankly, how vile it is and how my opponent is so unencumbered by the truth,” Gianforte said. “I’d rather have a dialogue on issues that face Montana.”
Bullock said he has raised concerns about Gianforte’s past because it is an indicator of what he will do in the future.
“It’s more than gotchas or things like that, it really goes down to what sort of Montana he wants,” Bullock said. “I’ll try to make sure I have the facts to back me up — I’m not sure I’m seeing that on the other side.”
Bullock repeatedly says Gianforte donating his campaign an unprecedented $5 million of his own money is evidence that the Bozeman businessman is trying to buy the election. Gianforte responds that Bullock is trying to do the same with financial support from political action committees and others totaling $255,000.
The Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association also have each spent millions on ads to influence the race.
Bulllock has accused Gianforte of being against public access to land and waterways, running a business that helped other companies cut or outsource jobs and advocating for a statewide sales tax.
Gianforte has denied the claims and has countered by attacking Bullock for piggybacking campaign events on top of official business for which he used a state plane, once attending a Paul McCartney concert in Missoula in 2014. Bullock partially reimbursed the state for trips in which campaign events were scheduled.
Gianforte has also tried to compare Bullock to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by saying both mishandled official emails. There is no record of Bullock’s emails from his time as attorney general, though officials with his Department of Administration say they were properly disposed of when he left office.
Bullock has highlighted Gianforte’s past contributions to conservative groups and causes, and his opposition to a Bozeman ordinance forbidding businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Gianforte campaign has denounced Bullock for not taking a stand against incoming refugees from Syria, playing on fears that terrorists may slip into the country. Bullock has said the safety of Montana residents is the top priority, but refugee resettlement is an issue for the federal government.
The refugee issue became a focal point in several Montana races after Missoula announced it would accept refugees. Congolese refugees have arrived in Montana but no Syrian refugees have.
University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin said the race this year has been nastier than past gubernatorial contests. He characterized the attacks as petty and unsubstantial but said they could have an impact on the outcome.
“Voters say they don’t like negative campaigns, but it’s also the case that negative information tends to be more easily remembered,” Saldin said.
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