Governor Gianforte?

The congressman enters a crowded GOP primary field

By Myers Reece

Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte made his 2020 gubernatorial candidacy official by filing paperwork last week, with a formal announcement expected this week. It’s Gianforte’s second run for governor, following his 2016 loss to Democrat Steve Bullock, who is now running for president.

Gianforte is accustomed to the campaign trail by now. After his loss to Bullock, Gianforte ran for and won a special election over Democrat Rob Quist in 2017 to earn the congressional seat vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke. The next year he successfully defended his seat against Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams.

A half year after his victory over Williams, Gianforte is on the move again. In an interesting twist, his departure may boost Williams’ chances. An open seat provides a clearer path to victory than facing a well-financed incumbent.

That’s one reason a number of Republicans in Montana were discouraging Gianforte from seeking the governor’s mansion. Their reasoning is that the congressman’s seat is too valuable to leave open.

Readers can find that argument spelled out in this week’s Beacon opinion section. A trio of GOP central committee leaders penned an op-ed, written before Gianforte’s official filing when his gubernatorial candidacy was still just a rumor, that cites the congressman’s important federal committee appointments.

“He shouldn’t ignore how important it is for Montana to have his strong Republican voice in Congress to support the president’s efforts to reform Washington,” the letter states.

Furthermore, the letter writers felt the party already had a formidable frontrunner: Attorney General Tim Fox. And they fear that Gianforte’s departure will lead statewide Republican office holders to vacate their seats to make a run for Congress.

“We hope the rumor of a dangerous Republican shuffle does not destroy the foundation we have all worked so hard to build,” the GOP committee chairs conclude.

Fox was thought to be leading a crowded field of Republicans vying for the governor’s seat, including Kalispell state Sen. Al Olszewski and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, as well as lower-profile candidates Pete Ziehli, a Kalispell resident, and former Manhattan state Sen. Gary Perry. Fox’s frontrunner status may now be challenged by Gianforte’s announcement, although he remains popular among Montana Republicans.

Gianforte, said to be the wealthiest congressman in the country, should have no problem financing a robust campaign. As of this writing, former Livingston state Rep. Reilly Neill is the only Democrat to officially declare for the race.

Mike Dennison of MTN News wrote a story on May 28 about the prospects of a Gianforte candidacy. Olszewski and Stapleton told Dennison they were unfazed, with Olszewski saying, “bring it on” and that he looks “forward to the campaign of competing ideas.”

In fact, Gianforte’s appearance on the ballot could boost the chances of non-Fox candidates by further dividing the voting pie. The more candidates, the smaller percentage of votes it takes to win, and a bigger crowd can change the ideological tenor of a primary.

Meanwhile, in Dennison’s story, Fox’s campaign spokesperson pointed a few barbs at Gianforte, saying, “Montanans deserve a governor who will actually serve the people of Montana, not just use their trust as a means to campaign for higher office.”

“Greg has made his priorities clear,” the spokesman continued. “His ambition is more important than his commitments to Montanans.”

Let the games begin.

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