HELENA – Montana gubernatorial candidates Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney will face off Saturday in the first of two debates in a competitive race.
Gianforte, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump and is known for body-slamming a reporter in 2017, is trying to become Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years.
One of the wealthiest members of Congress, Gianforte has touted his business experience, which includes founding a start-up technology company in his hometown of Bozeman that was eventually sold for almost $2 billion.
He faces current Lt. Gov. Cooney, who is vying for the seat after a long public service career in the state, including stints as secretary of state and president of the state Senate.
Disagreements about public lands and health care have dominated the race. Cooney has blasted Gianforte over his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, and a 2009 lawsuit filed by Gianforte to block public access to a popular river that runs through his private property.
The candidates also disagree on their response to the pandemic. Cooney has been supportive of the statewide mask mandate that has been in effect since July, while Gianforte has said he would rely on personal responsibility instead of mandates to limit the spread of the virus.
It’s the second attempt at the governor’s mansion for both candidates. Cooney, 66, ran unsuccessfully for the governor’s office in 2000. Gianforte, 59, ran for the office in 2016 and lost to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who has served the maximum two terms and is running for a U.S. Senate seat.
The governor’s race has so far been one of the most expensive on record for the state, with Gianforte pouring millions from his personal wealth into his campaign. Cooney has received record donations from Montana residents and outside groups.
The debate is set to be recorded remotely Saturday morning via an online platform as the debate host, the Montana Television Network, takes coronavirus precautions. It will be broadcasted Saturday evening. A second debate will take place on Tuesday.
Ballots will be mailed to most Montana registered voters in the state next week, after the majority of the state’s counties decided to hold the Nov. 3 election by mail.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.