BILLINGS – Attorney General Tim Fox is an unlikely political underdog after capturing more votes than any other candidate, in any race, to win a second term in Montana’s 2016 election.
Yet that’s the clear dynamic heading into the final weeks of the Republican primary for governor, where U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte has built up a huge cash lead and touts close ties to the Trump administration.
It’s put the normally affable Fox on the offensive, characterizing Gianforte as a toxic political figure who is trying to buy the race after the former technology entrepreneur lost an earlier bid for governor, in that same 2016 election.
Even as the two described themselves as friends and largely agreed on policy matters, Fox needled Gianforte on everything from his spending in the race to the lawmaker’s attendance record in Congress during their only two debates. He said in an interview that Gianforte will only get so far by “touting his Trumpness” as voters look for a steady leader amid the pandemic.
“I’ve had success building bridges and bringing people together. That’s what Montanans are craving,” Fox said. “We’re going to have to have leaders who are uniters and unifiers to find our way forward, not polarizing and divisive figures who turn people off.”
Gianforte doesn’t shy from questions over the more than $1 million he’s poured into the race, after spending more than $5 million of his money in the 2016 loss to Gov. Steve Bullock. He uses the fact to underscore an argument that his business experience is what’s needed to grapple with the unemployment spike and other problems from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve lived the American dream,” said Gianforte, who founded a software company that grew to more than 1,000 employees before it was bought by Oracle for more than $1.5 billion in 2011. “We created a level of prosperity that, for many Montana families, had not existed for a long, long time. I want to see that for others.”
Gianforte drew national attention and praise from Trump when he physically assaulted a reporter on the eve of his first election to Congress, for which he later apologized after initially misleading investigators.
He dismissed Fox’s criticisms of his track record as an attempt to manipulate voters, and told The Associated Press that his aggressive pursuit of the governor’s seat is a reflection of the same energy he brought to the private sector and his three years as the state’s sole member of the U.S. house.
“When I want to do something — and the people of Montana know this — I’m all in,” Gianforte said.
Even subtracting his personal loans, Gianforte has still by far raised the most money in the race.
Bullock is barred from a third term due to term limits. He’s attempting to unseat first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who prior to entering politics worked as an executive at Gianforte’s Bozeman-based company, RightNow Technologies.
The GOP primary’s dark horse is state Sen. Al Olszewski, a Flathead Valley surgeon who caters to the party’s right wing. He contends he has the best shot in the November general election because conservative voters will stay home without a candidate who aligns with their views.
“You shouldn’t have to become Republican-lite to win the general election That’s what I’m seeing from Gianforte and Fox,” he said.
In contrast with his opponents, Olszewski has been an outspoken critic of a proposed settlement of a water rights dispute with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. And amid widespread health concerns due to the pandemic, he’s stepped up his longstanding call to repeal a state expansion of Medicaid that made people more eligible.
“Health care to me is not a right and it’s not a privilege,” he said. “Instead of giving it to you, I’d rather the government give you a refundable tax credit for your health care premium.”
Both Fox and Gianforte say the expansion should be kept.
Olszewski also stands apart in his opposition to coronavirus-related business closures. He appeared at a rally in Helena last month protesting the moves.
Fox and Gianforte said the closure directives from Bullock represented the right thing to do given the uncertainty at the time. However, they questioned if the same would be needed if a second wave of coronavirus infections occurs, and suggested more flexibility on when businesses could stay open.
Already state officials are bracing for budget problems stemming from the health crisis. Those are exacerbated by a dramatic downturn in the energy industry, which accounts for a sizable portion of state revenues.
Olszewski and Gianforte say tax cuts should be considered to boost businesses and individuals. Olszewski offers the more radical plan: steep reductions in property taxes and funding schools with revenues from natural resources development.
Fox, who has issued more than a dozen detailed policy plans on everything from education and agriculture to public safety, said drastic changes for school funding were “irresponsible if not undoable.”
He said he would focus on finding areas of the state budget that could be cut and promoting public infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges to create jobs.
The June 2 primary is a mail-in only election due to the coronavirus. The victor in the Republican race will face either Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney or Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams as the Democratic candidate.