Attorney general candidates Raph Graybill (left) and Austin Knudsen

Over the next five months, the race to become Montana’s most powerful lawyer may present one of the richest contrasts between candidates anywhere on the 2020 ballot.

Attorney general hopefuls Raph Graybill, a Democrat, and Republican Austin Knudsen hail from two different parts of the state, have starkly contrasting resumes and tout often contradictory visions for the office they seek. Graybill currently serves as chief legal counsel to Gov. Steve Bullock; Knudsen has been the Roosevelt County Attorney since 2018. 

Depending on which candidate voters elect, Montana could become a state known for picking big fights with powerful corporations and joining other states in high-profile lawsuits, or the state could prioritize a slate of crime-fighting initiatives cracking down on drug use and distribution. 

The race will also challenge the candidates’ ability to gather grassroots support statewide and get voter buy-in for their messages. Graybill, who grew up in Great Falls, drew the majority of his more than $313,500 in fundraising from the western part of the state, with about 55% of his itemized donations coming from Montanans. Knudsen collected roughly $165,400 during the primary, and had a much stronger fundraising showing than Graybill in the eastern part of the state. More than 96% of the Republican nominee’s itemized donations came from state residents. 

Originally from Culbertson, Knudsen has long been a public figure in the Montana Republican Party. After graduating from the University of Montana law school in 2008, he served four terms as a state legislator beginning in 2011. He was elected speaker of the House in 2015, when he was 33, and re-elected to that position in the 2017 session. 

One of the animating issues of Knudsen’s 2015 term was his opposition to Montana’s Medicaid expansion plan under the Affordable Care Act, a law that has since provided health care coverage to more than 90,000 Montanans. Knudsen hasn’t softened on the policy since, listing his disagreement with the ACA as one of the reasons he decided to run for attorney general. In a recent interview, Knudsen said he was upset to learn that current Attorney General Tim Fox filed a brief defending portions of the law this year when it was brought before a federal appeals court.

“I just personally have a real problem with that,” Knudsen told KBUL’s Montana Talks program, specifically critiquing the increased premiums that some recipients have reported. “I’ve fought Obamacare being in the Legislature. I think it’s done vastly greater harm to the state of Montana than it’s done good,” Knudsen said.

Throughout the primary, Knudsen campaigned on another health-related issue. Since being elected as Roosevelt County Attorney in 2018, Knudsen said, he has become increasingly concerned about the rise in methamphetamine-related cases across the state, a trend he blames on Mexican cartels shuttling the drug into the U.S. across the country’s southern border. 

“Until we can get a handle on that, the stuff is going to keep flowing in,” Knudsen said in an interview with Montana Free Press, adding that he supports President Donald Trump’s hardline border enforcement policies. “So the question becomes, how do we stop it and control it once it’s in the state?”

Law enforcement and health officials have wide ranging opinions about how to interrupt cycles of drug use and addiction. The solution Knudsen proposes begins with channeling funding away from current Department of Justice programs to local law enforcement agencies.  

“What I want to do is redirect a lot of that funding and get it out to where it’s actually going to do some good,” Knudsen said. “I mean, you can spend all the money you want at the Department of Justice in Helena. That’s not going to help the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office get themselves a drug dog.”

The Department of Justice typically has little role in funding county attorneys or sheriff’s offices, but has increased funding in recent years for the Montana Highway Patrol, which can collaborate with local law enforcement entities. Knudsen didn’t specify which DOJ services and programs he would consider defunding. 

Knudsen’s acute emphasis on local drug enforcement presents a sharp contrast to the broad public-interest concerns of Graybill, who spent much of the primary promising to mount consumer protection cases against insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

“The attorney general can weigh in on the kinds of issues that might not dominate political discourse, but affect people in their daily lives,” Graybill said.

Graybill, 31, grew up in Great Falls and now lives in Helena. He attended Columbia University for his undergraduate degree and later graduated from Oxford University, where he received a master’s degree in philosophy. As a Rhodes Scholar, he studied the origins of Montana’s 1972 Constitution, which his grandfather helped draft. Graybill graduated from Yale Law School in 2015 and went on to work at a commercial litigation firm in Seattle before returning to Montana to become Bullock’s chief legal counsel in 2017. 

Since then, he’s argued cases and helped craft legal initiatives that allow farmers and ranchers to put their land into conservation easements for public access, protect net neutrality, and challenged a change in campaign finance disclosure requirements implemented by the IRS. As attorney general, Graybill said, he would continue advocating for Montanans statewide and nationally.

“I think that what Montanans want in their attorney is they want independence, they want someone that is loyal only to them and who will take the rights and protections that we are owed under the law,” Graybill said. “That’s the message I took all across Montana, big cities, small towns, as a primary election candidate. And that is the same message I’ll take as a general election candidate.”

The two candidates’ messages speak to conflicting ideas about the role and responsibilities of the office. Knudsen is quick to critique Graybill’s campaign as too idealistic and not sufficiently focused on the daily issues affecting Montanans.

“He’s talking about a lot of kind of pie-in-the-sky social justice or progressive ideals that, frankly, I just don’t think the attorney general’s office is designed for,” Knudsen said. “If you want to go to public interest law, you should go to public interest law. That’s fine. And that’s laudable. But I don’t think a Montana attorney general’s office is the place to do that.” 

Graybill and his campaign disagree, arguing that the candidate’s issues are essential public service. 

“Being denied life-saving medical care by an insurance company isn’t a ‘pie in the sky’ issue,” said campaign spokeswoman Ronja Abel. “Getting ripped off by extortionate prices for prescription drugs isn’t a ‘pie in the sky’ issue — it’s an economic security issue for every one of us at the mercy of big pharmaceutical corporations.”

Graybill contends that it’s Knudsen’s vision for the office that’s off the mark. 

“The criminal justice issues that [Knudsen] talks about are undoubtedly important,” Graybill said, clarifying that he disagrees with the Republican candidate’s approach. “But importantly, that’s not what the attorney general does. The actual prosecutions with drug crimes in Montana do not occur at the attorney general’s office. Those occur at the county attorney level. That’s what [Knudsen] does right now as his day job.”

Knudsen has also been criticized, both by Graybill and his Republican primary opponent Jon Bennion, for only briefly holding the office of county attorney before announcing his candidacy for attorney general. Knudsen declared his run in May 2019, roughly seven months after being elected in Roosevelt County. 

Knudsen, for his part, questions the experience of his opponent, who was admitted to the Montana bar in September 2015, calling Graybill’s roughly five years of practice “concerning.”

“I don’t think you can call that a really broad legal practice,” Knudsen said. “I don’t think Raph Graybill has got the depth and background in the various areas of Montana law necessary to be the attorney general. I just don’t.”

After an official allegation was filed against him, Graybill was cleared to run for attorney general by the Commissioner of Political Practices, who found that he will meet the minimum requirement for time practicing law by the November election. 

With roughly five months until voters pick between the two, Knudsen and Graybill each plan to wage aggressive campaigns, along with other Republican and Democratic contenders on the ballot.

Knudsen has been an early and vocal supporter of Republican gubernatorial candidate Gianforte, who in turn has thrown his weight behind the county attorney. Gianforte and his wife, Susan, both contributed the maximum amount donation to Knudsen’s primary campaign; the candidates also share the services of campaign strategist Jake Eaton, who runs the consulting firm The Political Company.

On the other side, Graybill shares political connections with Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who won his party’s primary for governor on Tuesday. Both men are part of the Bullock administration and have gained the governor’s endorsement.

After years of different parties running the executive branch and the attorney general’s office,  the outcome of November’s election could reshape Montana’s political landscape over the next four years, particularly if either party takes both seats. 

“Obviously these two positions have their own defined roles, so there’s a limit to how much they can coordinate perfectly,” said Rob Saldin, political science professor at the University of Montana. “But you could imagine that being a really powerful coalition in the Capitol, for sure.”

The immediate issue, Saldin said, is how each candidate will manage to distinguish himself and increase his statewide name recognition during such a high-profile election year, when federal Republican candidates may be especially influential on down-ballot races.

“Most Montanans don’t know anything about Raph Graybill or Austin Knudson,” Saldin said. “So if it just turns into a generic ‘R’ and a generic ‘D,’ clearly that works toward the benefit of Republicans,” he said, referring to statewide races. 

Over the next several months, Graybill and Knudsen say, they’ll seek to educate Montanans about their platforms and convince voters they would be the best choice to advocate for the public’s interest. 

“I’m running because we’ve got a crime problem and we’ve got a drug problem,” Knudsen said. “I’m kind of a local government guy. I probably get a little different perspective because I’m not sitting in Helena, I’m out, I’m kind of dealing down on the front lines, so to speak, with the officers who are actually dealing with this every day.”

Graybil said he trusts Montanans to think about the attorney general’s position more broadly.

“I think voters are going to make an educated choice in this race,” Graybill said. “What does this candidate believe in? How will these candidates’ promises and policies make my life better or make my life worse?”

“You’ve got two lawyers in their thirties who are, you know, in the sort of front end of their careers in public service, who are offering voters a very different competing vision for what their parties want to do for people,” he continued. “I think we’re both in for a spirited contest.”

This article was updated June 6, 2020, to reflect the following correction: Austin Knudsen became Roosevelt County Attorney in 2018, not 2017 as originally reported.

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.