If Greg Gianforte has it his way, the Republican tech entrepreneur will soon join his longtime friend and former business associate Sen. Steve Daines in Washington, D.C., battening down the GOP’s 20-year stronghold on Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
On Friday afternoon, Gianforte’s campaign swagger was on full display when Daines, along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, appeared alongside the Bozeman businessman at an event in Kalispell to rally support leading up to Montana’s special election on May 25.
Montana is one of five states featuring special elections this year for open House seats, four of them vacated when President Trump selected conservative lawmakers to join his administration as cabinet picks, including Zinke, the Whitefish Republican who vacated his seat to assume a new role overseeing the nation’s public lands and natural resources.
Drawing on his experiences hunting in the Treasure State’s wide-open spaces, Trump Jr., an avid outdoorsman, told the hundreds of supporters gathered at a private hangar at Glacier Park International Airport that Gianforte would uphold Montana’s values while helping his father’s administration right a listing ship in Congress.
“So many of the things that are special to Montana are special to me, which is why I am out here as often as I truly am,” Trump Jr. told the crowd, mentioning the elk and mule deer hunting tags he drew last November during a respite following his father’s hard-fought presidential victory.
The event was the first stop of a two-day barnstorming tour of Montana that includes rallies in Hamilton, Billings and Bozeman, which all delivered a high volume of Republican votes in November.
With Zinke’s confirmation March 1 as secretary of the interior, an appointment that Trump Jr. reportedly encouraged his father to make — he quipped to Zinke on Friday that “I may have helped with the transition team a little bit” — Montana’s special election was cast into the national spotlight as Democrats looked to capitalize on the new administration’s early missteps, including an inability to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
In Montana, Gianforte, who in November lost his bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock by 4 percentage points, will square off in the special election against Democrat Rob Quist, a well-known musician and rancher from Creston, as his chief opponent.
Both political outsiders have received high-ticket support from big names in political circles, with Quist drawing a ringing endorsement from former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, as well as a pledge from Bernie Sanders, the Democratic senator from Vermont, to barnstorm the state on Quist’s behalf.
Quist has drawn hundreds of supporters to his statewide events, and numerous Republicans who attended Friday’s event in Kalispell predicted that the special election would be a tight contest.
And as Democrats narrow the gap on Republicans running for congressional seats in states that voted overwhelmingly for Trump — including a surprisingly close special election in Kansas and another in Georgia, both of which sparked Republican hand-wringing — the races have been portrayed as a referendum on a president whose administration has faced numerous stumbling blocks in its initial 100 days.
Trump Jr. acknowledged as much, and urged rally attendees to extend the GOP’s winning streak by sending Gianforte to Congress.
“This is going to be viewed as a referendum on Trump. Let’s show them and the rest of the world, and certainly the rest of the country, that this wasn’t a one-time thing in November or some sort of fluke. And it wasn’t,” he said. “But let’s show them that by bringing Greg into Congress.”
Trump Jr., 39, said his father had maintained a commitment to implementing commonsense business solutions and shrinking federal overreach, and urged audience members not to “sit back on our laurels” and grow complacent on the heels of the GOP’s presidential victory.
“We have a critical opportunity here,” he said. “When you look at what my father has been able to do in a short two, three months, I feel like it is more than the prior two terms of the last president. It is one thing to talk about it, but action, action though, is a whole different concept.”
Trump Jr. drew comparisons between his father and Gianforte, a tech entrepreneur and multi-millionaire who has never held political office, and who sold his self-made company RightNow Technologies to Oracle in 2012.
In his stump speech Friday, Gianforte hit familiar tones as he promised to “drain the swamp” by pushing for term limits, prohibit lawmakers from leaving their congressional posts to become lobbyists, improve fiscal discipline, and remove burdensome business regulations.
He opened with an anecdote about his support for the Second Amendment, saying that when an “East Coast reporter” recently asked him how many guns he owns, he responded, “The right number of guns is always one more.”
Gianforte’s support for the Second Amendment has been a prominent campaign platform, as well as a barb he’s frequently used to attack Quist, whose suggestion that he might support a gun registry for fully automatic assault rifles has become fodder for the campaign.
On April 20, both candidates appeared in separate television ads wielding firearms in an effort to showcase their support for gun rights.
Most of the approximately 400 rally-goers appeared steadfast in their commitment to Gianforte, while others said they attended to hear what the Republican candidate believed in.
One attendee, Tim, a Republican who declined to give his full name, said while he would likely vote for Gianforte, he thought the Republican seemed “outshined” on a stage beside Trump, Jr., Zinke and Daines, and that Quist seemed like a charismatic, authentic candidate.
Others, like Republican voter Lucinda Hardy, of Columbia Falls, said Gianforte’s business acumen and support for rolling back federal regulation made him an easy choice.
“Montana is in the spotlight, and now it needs to be taken seriously,” she said.