Party chair candidates campaign and rumors swirl

HELENA—U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte told Montana Republicans he’s “all in” and will go “all out” in the 2020 governor’s race, citing his experience as a business executive, job creator and problem solver.

“For 16 years, one party has controlled the governor’s office,” he said. “For 16 years, Republican policies and conservative solutions have been met with a veto pen.”

Montanans have told him the state needs new leadership in the governor’s office, “an executive in the governor’s office, someone with business experience and a customer service mindset,” Gianforte said.  He and his wife founded RightNow Technologies, a computer software business in Bozeman that later merged with Oracle.

“My No. 1 priority is to work day-in and day-out to create more higher-wage jobs for Montana and more opportunities for Montanans to prosper,” he said.  At RightNow Technologies, Gianforte said, he and his wife created 500 jobs with an average salary of $90,000 a year, not counting benefits, which helped bring Montanans home from other states.

Gianforte filed the paperwork to run for governor last week but made his formal announcement at a noon speech at the Republican State Officers’ Convention.

He is in a Republican field for governor that includes Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is term-limited.

Gianforte lost to Bullock for governor in 2016 and was elected to Congress in a 2017 special election, and re-elected in 2018.

Gianforte pledged that, if elected, he would oppose all tax increases, as well as a sales tax. He vowed to stand up for gun rights, and said he would “always defend life.” The candidate called for keeping public lands accessible and in the public’s hands, and that he will offer solutions to fight the spread of meth and opioid abuse and work to help nonviolent offenders back on their feet, focusing on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

Jack Cutter, a spokesman for Fox’s campaign, criticized Gianforte for abandoning his seat in Congress.

“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,” Cutter said. “Greg has made his priorities clear. His ambition is more important than his commitments to Montanans.”

Olszewski said he supported Gianforte’s past races but wishes he would remain in Congress. Gianforte’s entry into the governor’s race will work to the Olszewski’s advantage, the lawmaker said.

“The contrast and comparison of our respective service and success will clearly show that I am the best man to lead Montana as our next governor,” Olszewski said.

Montana Democratic Party Chair Monica Lindeen said Gianforte “is asking Montanans to vote for an anti-health care, anti-public access, anti-privacy, failed candidate.”  She said Gianforte in Congress voted repeatedly against affordable health care, but voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

“Montanans do not want someone in the governor’s office who will protect his own wealth over the well-being of everyday Montanans,” Lindeen said.


Two candidates running in Saturday’s election of the next state Republican chairman were busy campaigning, buttonholing delegates and handing out pamphlets and cards touting their backgrounds.

The candidates seeking the chairmanship are Don Kaltschmidt, better known to party members as Don K, of Whitefish, and Terry Nelson of Hamilton. They are looking to succeed Debra Lamm of Livingston, who is not seeking re-election to the two-year post.

Kaltschmidt, who owns a car dealership, said his business, including organization, leadership and fundraising, would be an asset as chairman. He has been the finance director of the Flathead County Republican Party.

Asked about the Montana GOP’s philosophical split, Kaltschmidt said, “I think our party is a party of ideas. People are very, very passionate about their ideas.  That’s good to see. With my skills the Lord has blessed me with, I think we can come together.”

Nelson has been Ravalli County Republican chairman for a decade and has been involved with the state party as well.

“I also have helped Ravalli County become much stronger Republican, and I think I can help make it stronger,” Nelson said, adding that he believes those skills can apply statewide.

Nelson, too, was confident he could help bring the factions of the party together.

Credit: Thom Bridge / Helena Independent Record


Meanwhile, rumors abounded about various Republicans considering at higher office.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who announced in January a campaign for governor in 2020, may be looking instead at Montana’s lone House seat. Gianforte had not announced for governor when Stapleton joined the race.

Stapleton declined to confirm his rumored House candidacy on Friday, saying he will have an announcement on Saturday.  He is a former state senator from Billings who was elected secretary of state in 2016.

Another potential Republican House candidate is Joe Dooling, a rancher from the Helena Valley and chairman of the Lewis and Clark County GOP Central Committee. He wasn’t at the Republican convention, but instead was at a Montana Stockgrowers Association meeting in Miles City.

“We’re seriously looking at it,” Dooling said in a phone interview, warning that agriculture in Montana and other states faces its biggest crisis in years. He said he intends to announce his plans by July 4.

Dooling said he is tired of seeing the state’s lone congressional seat used as a springboard for higher office. If he were elected, Dooling said, he would pledge to remain in the House.

Former state District Court Judge Rep. Russ Fagg of Billings said he is “kicking the tires,” but unsure if he will run for office in 2020. Fagg, a former lawmaker, lost to state Auditor Matt Rosendale in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2018.

State Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson of East Helena has been mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state, an office he held previously. He said he’s been too busy with work at the PSC to give much thought to his political future and feels no pressure to make any plans.

State Senate Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, has already announced his run for secretary of state.

“Never say never,” Johnson said.

Charles Johnson is veteran Montana political and state government reporter.