Like I Was Saying

A Dreaded Label

Tim Fox, in a press release announcing his candidacy, emphasized his conservative credentials

Attorney General Tim Fox announced last week that he is running for governor in 2020. For now, he’s perceived as the man to beat in the Republican primary, which is still 17 months away

He joins Secretary of State of Corey Stapleton in running for an office Democrats have held for the last 14 years. Fox has served the last six years as AG and stayed largely above the fray of state politics.

One of Fox’s most public spats was actually with Stapleton, who in the run-up to the 2018 election hired an outside attorney to defend his office in a lawsuit challenging the Green Party’s ballot certification. The secretary of state’s office lost the suit, and immediately afterward Fox questioned why Stapleton, as a public official, didn’t ask the Justice Department to represent him.

Stapleton said he wanted someone he could trust in the courtroom and thought he would be better served by Billings attorney Emily Jones.

In response, Fox said, “The Secretary’s of State criticism is especially mystifying since he is currently using our attorneys for other litigation. Ultimately, he made a political decision to needlessly spend $60,00 on outside counsel and lost the case.”

To be sure, Fox has butted heads with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, including when the governor approved the purchase of a $6.1 million easement after the state Land Board delayed action on the proposal. Fox argued Bullock couldn’t unilaterally approve large conservation easements, but the Montana Supreme Court overruled him.

Fox also had a dustup with the traditionally liberal Missoula City Council after it passed an ordinance requiring background checks on all gun sales. The AG challenged the regulations, a judge ruled against him three times, and he has since appealed those rulings to the state Supreme Court.

Yet Fox is still largely considered a less-ideological Republican when compared to his potential challengers, Montana State University political scientists told the Associated Press’ Matt Volz last week. And members of Fox’s own party have criticized him for being too moderate, which could hurt him in the primary.

That may be why Fox, in a press release announcing his candidacy, emphasized his conservative credentials.

“Montanans want a strong conservative who fights for our communities, reins in government, and protects our constitutional liberties,” Fox said.

And in an interview with Volz, the AG outright dismissed the idea that he is a moderate.

“Conservatism isn’t measured by who can shout the loudest with a camera or a microphone in their face, it’s really measured by results,” Fox said. “Certainly, I’ve been able to work with people on both sides of the aisle — that’s not being moderate, that’s being a statesman.”

Along with Fox and Stapleton, several more Republicans are expected to join the field of governor candidates in the coming weeks and, regardless of what Fox says, most of those candidates will say they’re campaigning to his right.

The last time there was an open governor’s seat, in 2012, seven Republicans faced off in the primary, with the winner, Rick Hill, garnering just 34 percent of the vote. Last year, four GOP candidates ran in the primary to challenge incumbent and eventual winner Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. State Auditor Matt Rosendale prevailed, but, again, with just about one-third of the vote.

Many of those previously failed gubernatorial candidates, like Stapleton, who previously lost to Hill in 2012, will likely run again. And expect them to spend much of their time pinning Fox with the dreaded moderate label.