HELENA – In the race for Montana’s sole congressional seat, Republicans have called the Democrat a tax dodger who doesn’t pay his bills. In turn, Democrats are branding the Republican as a wealthy carpetbagger who is out of touch with ordinary Montanans.
Personal finances have become a key focus of the campaign, even as the candidates stump for votes on starkly differing platforms on health care, gun rights, taxes and the very essence of Montana values.
Republican Greg Gianforte has had to defend himself from accusations that he’s trying to use his wealth to buy public office.
He made millions when he sold his software company RightNow Technologies to Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion. He spent $6 million of that fortune for his failed bid for governor and is raising millions more in his campaign for the May 25 special election to fill the seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Gianforte has touted his business acumen and job-generating experience as a qualification for public office. Because of his substantial wealth, he said, he can’t be bought.
He’s portrayed himself as a gun-loving, fly-fishing Montanan living the life in God’s country.
In recent days, Democrat Rob Quist has tried to draw attention to Gianforte’s sprawling wealth.
He zeroed in on Glanforte’s $240,000 in investments in index funds that he says the Republican should divest because of links to Russian firms under sanction by the U.S. government because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And in a new ad, Democrats charge that Gianforte would side with Wall Street millionaires.
During a recent debate, the Libertarian in the race, Mark Wicks, offered what many thought was an apt analysis of his opponents.
Wicks likened Gianforte to a luxury car seeking public office to be with other fancy cars parked at a country club, and Quist to a shiny truck with a good sound system but not much under the hood.
And when Gianforte spoke about taking Fridays off from work to take his children to the backcountry, Wicks rebuked him by saying most Montanans “have to work very hard to just make a living in this state.”
Wicks said he works three jobs as a contract mail carrier, shuttling rail workers in the winter and delivering produce during the summer.
“Many of us have to worry about whether we’re going to lose our health insurance if our job goes away,” he said.
Turning to Quist, he said the entertainer “hasn’t accumulated anything in his life.”
Quist, a 69-year-old crooner who prefers cowboy hats and big-buckled belts, contrasts himself as a down-home commoner who’s traveled all the backroads of his expansive state.
Democrats were caught off guard two months ago when Quist acknowledged years of financial travails, including three liens for unpaid state income taxes, a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and a $10,000 loan default.
The tax liens were settled last year and a campaign staffer provided documentation Saturday that the loan has been repaid.
Just recently, he refiled a federally required financial disclosure statement after The Associated Press raised questions about its accuracy. His 2016 federal tax return shows Quist and his wife Bonni had $64,805 in income.
Quist uses his money troubles as part of a campaign narrative aimed at connecting with ordinary Montanans who have financial struggles of their own.
Hank Kerttula, who works on a ranch in Avon just outside the capital city of Helena, usually votes for Republicans — unless “a really good Democrat comes along.”
Quist doesn’t look like that Democrat, he said.
“If he’s going to represent me, he has to pay his bills,” said Kettula while brunching on a recent Sunday morning at a roadside cafe. “He was just letting his taxes go.”
For voters like Gary Rodewald, all the talk about money is a distraction from the policy issues he’d rather be hearing about.
“Right now, all we’re seeing are these yokels who are shooting televisions and walking around trying to look folksy,” said Rodewald, a nurse practitioner from Hamilton, a conservative enclave at the foot of the upper Rockies.
Rodewald, another Republican who sometimes votes for Democrats, has been to a Quist concert or two but isn’t a fan of the Democrat’s politics thus far.
“Maybe he should concentrate on paying his taxes and bills,” he said.
As for Gianforte, well, he’s not so sure he’s on the side of ordinary Montanans. “How much can he identify with the guy who’s making $30-$40 grand a year?” Rodewald asked.
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