Gubernatorial candidates Greg Gianforte (left) and Mike Cooney

The contest to be Montana’s next governor is already building up to be a heated and expensive clash between the state’s current U.S. representative and lieutenant governor, after Greg Gianforte and Mike Cooney declared victory in their respective primaries on Tuesday.

Cooney cinched the Democratic ticket with nearly 55% of the vote, fending off a challenge from businesswoman Whitney Williams, founder of a philanthropic consulting firm.

“It’s a great feeling,” Cooney said in a phone call after the results registered. “I think this is what Montanans want, and we’re ready for the next phase of the campaign.

Williams offered support for Cooney in her concession speech, saying the former rivals are “united” in the effort to defeat Gianforte in November. 

Gianforte bested his Republican opponents with more than 53% of the vote, despite passionate challenges from Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olzsewski. 

“Al and Tim are my friends,” Gianforte told Montana Free Press after the results were in. “They ran very spirited campaigns, and I’m thankful for that. And I’m looking forward to working with them to get Republicans elected in November up and down the ballot.”

Not all challengers, however, were quick to rally behind their party’s nominee. In a statement posted to Facebook early Wednesday, Fox said he hoped Montana’s next governor would be a “thoughtful and humble” leader who feels “love and compassion” for constituents. The statement did not endorse Gianforte, but defended Fox’s campaign while referencing the challenges it faced. 

“We’ve shown Montana that there are still candidates willing to put the people over personal ambition,” Fox wrote. “That leadership means more than just expensive TV ads and flashy mail pieces.” 

Gianforte’s campaign fund dominated the field, totalling roughly $3.6 million in donations, including $1,550,000 in self-financing, and at least $2.6 million in spending as of late May. 

Cooney’s roughly $895,000 in donations was a smaller haul than his Democratic opponent reported, but did not stop him from securing support across the state. After the race was called, Cooney’s campaign pivoted to highlighting his contrasts with Gianforte, hammering the Republican’s personal wealth and political history. 

“Montana will choose between a team of trusted Montana leaders with deep Montana roots and experience, or an out-of-touch millionaire who has voted to gut healthcare for Montanans with pre-existing conditions, personally sued to block public access, and refuses to show up and meet with his own constituents,” Cooney said in a statement.

Gianforte was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017 after losing a bid for governor the previous year. A tech entrepreneur and long-time Bozeman resident, Gianforte’s 2020 campaign is promising to create economic growth and high-wage jobs in Montana.

“On day one, I’ll roll up my sleeves and start working so we can get our economy going again, get Montana open for business, and get Montanans back to work in good-paying jobs,” Gianforte said in a statement released Tuesday night.

Statewide and national political organizations immediately queued up behind the candidates. 

Soon after Gianforte declared victory, the Montana Democratic Party released statements attacking him for missing votes in Congress and claiming that the primary left him “weak” and “incapable” of rallying Republican support.

The Democratic Governor’s Association has also signaled that the race between Cooney and Gianforte is a top priority out of several other national gubernatorial contests, and has launched an ad campaign focusing on Gianforte’s voting record and, according to their internal polling, his unpopularity.

“Gianforte is a uniquely divisive figure who, despite spending millions in positive advertising, remains the most unpopular federally elected official in Montana,” said Jerusalem Demsas, communications director for the DGA.

Democrats and some Republican critics have also been consistent in reminding voters of Gianforte’ criminal record. The candidate was convicted of misdemeanor assault after attacking Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during Gianforte’s 2017 campaign for Congress. Gianforte has apologized for the incident and, in an interview with Montana Free Press last month, said the public has “moved on.”

On the other side, the Republican Governors’ Association set out to paint Cooney as a “career politician” who has earned more than $1 million over his 44 years in state government, during which time taxes have increased for state residents.

“As working families and small businesses are struggling to recover and rebuild, Mike Cooney’s decades-long record of pushing for more taxes, fees, and government red tape is the opposite of what Montana needs to move forward,” said Amelia Chassé Alcivar, communications director for the RGA, in a statement accompanying an attack ad.

In a statement, the Montana Republican Party also weighed in on Cooney’s government tenure while praising Gianforte’s experience in the private sector. 

“The choice for Montanans this November couldn’t be clearer: a successful businessman and strong conservative in Greg Gianforte, or a career politician and bureaucrat in Mike Cooney who’s been running for office since 1976,” said party chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt.

For its part, Cooney’s campaign intends to highlight his track record in state government and role in Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration. Cooney is frank in acknowledging the challenge of Gianforte’s spending power.

“We just need to get out [and] work very hard where we know we’re going to be outspent. We don’t have deep pockets,” Cooney said. “We’re just going to work harder.”

Gianforte said he also plans to wage a strong ground game with in-person campaign events as Montana continues its phased re-opening after coronavirus closures.

“I think most Montanans are ready to get back to normal,” Gianforte said. “We’ve had diminishing new cases. I think Montanans are ready to get back to work. And I think that if there was a reoccurrence, we know so much more about this virus now that we can make sure we protect the most vulnerable.

Tuesday’s all-mail primary race saw a record 381,163 ballots cast statewide. The high turnout created energy and excitement for the months of campaigning ahead, despite uncertainty related to COVID-19.

“We’re going to take every advantage we can to make sure that we’re having those contacts [with voters], whether it’s face to face, virtually, or whatever,” Cooney said. “Because we think that’s important for the people of Montana to know who they’re electing for the next governor.”

Mara Silvers

Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.