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HELENA — There’s nearly a year to go before Montana’s June 2, 2020, primary election, but as three GOP candidates for governor jockey for position, early campaign contribution filings indicate which wings of the party are supporting which candidacies.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a former Bozeman tech entrepreneur and staunch conservative who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016 and was convicted of misdemeanor assault for attacking a reporter during his successful 2017 special election run for Congress, has posted higher fundraising numbers than his opponents, but has received donations from few Republican state legislators.
Attorney General Tim Fox, in contrast, has drawn substantial support from the so-called solutions caucus faction of the Republican party, a group of legislators who frustrated right-wingers by brokering a compromise with Democrats on Medicaid expansion during the 2019 legislative session.
The third Republican in the governor’s race, Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, is trailing his competitors in fundraising, but has picked up endorsements from the Legislature’s hard-right wing.
Three other Republican candidates who filed to run for governor — Peter Ziehli, Gary Perry, and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton — have withdrawn from the race.
State campaign finance reports recording contributions through June 30 indicate that Gianforte has raised $339,853 to compete in the Republican primary, versus $225,541 for Fox and $32,524 for Olszewski. Those figures exclude personal loans Gianforte and Olszewski have given their campaigns of $50,000 and $100,000, respectively.
Among Gianforte’s supporters are his former RightNow Technologies colleague and current U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and three sitting Republican state legislators, including Speaker of the House Rep. Greg Hertz of Polson.
Other than those legislators, Gianforte has picked up little financial support from GOP lawmakers, who’ve tended to support Fox or Olszewski.
Republican House Majority Leader Rep. Brad Tschida — who used his closing remarks as the Legislature adjourned in April to lament the solutions caucus’ willingness to compromise with Democrats — has endorsed and donated to Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon who has served in the Legislature since 2015. According to a Montana Free Press count, at least 15 other Republican legislators from the party’s right wing have also donated to Olszewski, including Sen. Dee Brown of Hungry Horse, Rep. Alan Redfield of Livingston, and Rep. Theresa Manzella of Hamilton.
Olszewski said in a phone interview this week that he was urged to join the race by a group of fellow conservative legislators.
“They wanted someone they could trust in the governor’s office, and I’m that someone,” he said.
Fox, in contrast, has received campaign contributions from, among others, Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, the solution caucus’s de facto organizer; House Appropriations Committee Co-chair Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton; and Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, who sponsored the Medicaid expansion renewal bill. Fox has received donations from 21 legislators, all but one named as solutions caucus members in previous Montana Free Press reporting.
While Republican hard-liners have criticized the solutions caucus as being insufficiently loyal to conservative ideology, Fox said in a phone interview that his base of support includes “plenty of conservatives.”
“I’m getting a lot of support from all across the state,” Fox said. “People feel that I’m the candidate who can get elected and actually get something done.”
Fundraising lead aside, Gianforte has received criticism from his primary opponents and other GOP figures who have accused him of putting personal ambition before the good of the party by pursuing the governorship instead of defending his seat in the U.S. House.
“In 2018, during his congressional run, some Republicans balked at investing in Gianforte because they feared he would jump ship to the governor’s seat,” former Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher wrote in a Flathead Beacon column last month. “Despite his assurances that he was committed to retaining the congressional seat, apparently the rumor was true.”
“For those of us on the ground who work hard to get Republicans elected to office,” Fisher wrote, “we feel duped when someone who holds a seat we worked hard to place them in turns around and runs for a different seat, leaving the position vulnerable to Democratic control.”
Gianforte spokesman Dan Duffey said by email that Gianforte has secured endorsements from “dozens” of state legislators, including Hertz and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas.
“After 16 years of Democrats controlling the Governor’s office, Republicans need to have our strongest candidate in this race and Greg is the strongest candidate [to] win back the Governor’s office,” Duffey wrote.
To date, the Democratic primary is shaping up as a less competitive contest. While the Republicans seeking the governor’s office are already trading barbs, the two fundraising front-runners Democrats in the race, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, are backslapping each other with friendly tweets and their own shots at Gianforte.
“I’m pleased to welcome Lt. Gov. Cooney to the race!” Schreiner wrote on Twitter July 3 following his opponent’s campaign announcement. “With candidates like Greg Gianforte running, there is far more that unites Democrats than divides us.”
“Right back at you, good Representative!” Cooney responded.