Republican candidate for Montana governor Greg Gianforte (left) and Democrat Mike Cooney (right). Credit: Photos by Ray Lombardi (Gianforte) and Jeremy Gould (Cooney)

You’d be hard-pressed to identify prominent Montanans with more different resumes than the two major party candidates hoping to be elected Montana’s next governor this fall, succeeding term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. 

Greg Gianforte, the Republican nominee, is a familiar name on the Montana ballot. He currently serves as the state’s lone U.S. representative. His bid for governor this year is the former tech entrepreneur’s fourth statewide bid for office in four years.

Gianforte’s campaign has focused on his private sector bona fides as the founder of Right Now Technologies, the Bozeman-based customer service software company that was acquired by Oracle Corporation for approximately $1.5 billion in 2011. That track record, Gianforte argues, makes him the right candidate to bring entrepreneurial vigor to the governor’s office.

“The big challenge we have in Montana is we’re 44th in the nation in wages, and too many of our young people have to leave because they can’t find jobs here,” he said in an interview with Montana Free Press. “And this is what I spent my life doing, is creating jobs.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, the Democratic nominee, is a longtime if lower-profile fixture in Montana politics. A former secretary of state and state Senate president first elected to public office in 1976, he touts his decades-long record of public service as evidence he’ll be a reliable captain at the bridge of state government.

“Frankly, I think Montanans trust me,” Cooney said. “And in the situation we currently find ourselves in, with COVID-19, I think Montanans are looking for a steady hand to get us through.”

A Libertarian candidate for governor, Kalispell business owner Lyman Bishop, is also on the ballot. Montana Free Press has chosen not to profile Bishop because third-party candidates haven’t won significant shares of the vote historically in Montana elections. Libertarian nominee for governor Ted Dunlap received just over 3% of the vote in 2016.

THE STAKES

With Democrats unlikely to win control of the Montana House or Senate this year, the governor who is elected this fall will almost certainly enter at least the first half of his four-year term with a Republican-controlled Legislature setting the budget and proposing laws.

A Cooney win would likely renew the political dynamic at play in the Montana statehouse for nearly 16 years: a GOP-controlled Legislature constrained by a Democraric governor’s veto. During the 2019 session, for example, that power balance led to compromises between Democrats and “Solutions Caucus” Republicans on Medicaid expansion renewal and infrastructure bonding, over objections from hard-line conservatives.

Voting Gianforte into the executive’s chair, in contrast, would put Montana government under unified Republican control for the first time since 2005, giving conservatives a chance to implement policies that have been blocked by Democratic opposition. In 2019, for example, Bullock vetoed 36 Republican bills, including an anti-abortion measure and a law that would have exempted some Social Security benefits from state income taxes.

A Gianforte victory would also mean Republican leadership atop state agencies run by gubernatorial appointees, a roster that includes the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Commerce and Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Also, the governor occupies one of five seats on the Montana Land Board, which manages state trust lands to help fund public education. The governor also appoints members to the Montana Board of Public Education and the Board of Regents that oversees the state university system. Most appointees to those boards serve staggered seven-year terms, with four seats on each up for reappointment during the term of the incoming governor.

THE MOGUL

Gianforte, 59, is a self-described serial entrepreneur. Born in San Diego, California, he earned computer science and electrical engineering degrees from the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He co-founded and sold a software company, Brightwork Development, before moving to Bozeman in 1995, but is better known in Montana for RightNow Technologies, the customer service software company he founded in 1997 and developed into a major employer in Bozeman.

After selling RightNow to Oracle in 2011, Gianforte shifted into a role as a high-tech business promoter, pushing the sector as a way to bring more good-paying jobs to Montana. In 2014, he co-founded the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and launched a website touting a tech-centric economic development strategy for the state, bettermontanajobs.com. The following year, he launched a “Bring our Families Back tour” that promoted telecommuting as a way for Montana kids with out-of-state jobs to return home.

Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte (far left) speaks to Steed Industry workers at a job site in Helena on Aug. 27, 2020. Credit: Hazel Cramer / Community News Service

Those efforts raised Gianforte’s public profile in advance of his 2016 bid for governor. Facing a popular incumbent in Bullock and dogged by Democratic attacks on his public lands record and donations to conservative charitable causes, he lost that election by just shy of 20,000 votes.

The following year, President Donald Trump picked then-U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke as his Secretary of the Interior, creating a vacancy in Montana’s U.S. House Seat, and giving Gianforte another chance to bid for public office.

He was elected to the House in May 2017, unimpeded by an election-eve incident where Gianforte assaulted national media reporter, Ben Jacobs, who had approached the candidate to pester him for an answer to a health care policy question. Gianforte’s campaign spokesman at the time, Shane Scanlon, initially released a misleading statement about the incident, blaming Jacobs for initiating contact by grabbing Gianforte’s wrist and pushing both men to the ground. That account was contradicted by a Fox News crew that witnessed the altercation, and reported that Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck and punched him. Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge the following month and, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, acknowledged in court, “I grabbed his wrist.” 

Gianforte was re-elected to the House in 2018, a victory he cites as evidence that Montana voters don’t see the scandal as unforgivable. 

“I’m not perfect. I regret what happened. I’ve repeated that over and over again, and I take responsibility for it,” he told MTFP’s Montana Lowdown podcast earlier this year. “The people of Montana have moved on, and I think you should judge me by my actions since then,” he also said.

In Congress, Gianforte has been a reliable ally of President Donald Trump, voting with the president 95% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. He opposed the Democratic push to impeach Trump late last year and voted for the 2017 Republican tax bill.

Cooney has attacked Gianforte for how the 2017 tax cuts have added to the federal deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the tax cuts will add $1.9 trillion to the federal deficit over a 10-year span, even factoring in projections for how lower tax rates may boost economic growth.

As he sought the Republican nomination for governor last November, Gianforte’s campaign held a fundraiser in Helena with the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr. Speaking there, Gianforte touted the Trump administration as a model for Montana to emulate.

“Imagine if Montana took a page out of that national playbook and we put a business guy in the governor’s office,” he said.

Gianforte reiterated his support for Trump’s policies last month.

“I wouldn’t tweet the way he does, but I’m proud of the fact that he moved the embassy [in Israel] back to Jerusalem. I’m proud that we’ve reduced taxes, that we did regulatory review. He’s finally standing up to China. There’s a lot to be proud of in the work that the president’s done,” Gianforte said. “And his love for this country is, I think, very evident in all his speeches.”

The president endorsed Gianforte’s bid for governor from his Twitter account Sept. 23.

“Congressman Greg Gianforte (@GregForMontana) will be a tremendous Governor of Montana!,” the president wrote. “A successful Businessman, he will Cut your Taxes, Defend your #2A, and protect Montana’s Beautiful Public Lands. Greg has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

GIANFORTE’S PITCH

Gianforte is once more framing his pitch primarily around economic opportunity. In a Sept. 2 interview in the yard of his longtime home along the East Gallatin River on the outskirts of Bozeman, he talked about his own family, which has three of four adult children living out of state. That’s evidence, he said, that there’s work to be done.

“There are an awful lot of Montana families that are in the same situation we’ve been in. Unfortunately, we’ve been exporting our young people for decades,” he said. “Many of them want to come home. But unless we improve the economy and create more good-paying jobs, that’s just not possible.”

An economic policy plan published by Gianforte’s campaign champions the high-tech sector and manufacturing as ways to bring good-paying jobs to Montana and also focuses on longtime GOP priorities such as streamlining environmental permitting for natural resource development and reducing income and property taxes. It also highlights a number of economic development priorities that have been embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, such as boosting tourism, developing in-state meat processing capacity and improving rural broadband access.

Tax records indicate that Gianforte earned $184 million in income over the decade ending in 2018, a period that includes the RightNow sale. He and his wife, Susan, have dedicated much of that fortune to philanthropy. Tax records show the Gianforte Family Foundation has put $65 million toward charitable causes over that same time period. Major recipients have included the Petra Academy, a Bozeman private school where Gianforte sent his children and has served as a trustee, and the Rafiki Foundation, a Florida-based evangelical charity that works in several African countries.

The Gianfortes have previously supported the Foundation Advancing Creation Truth, which runs a biblically inspired, anti-evolution dinosaur museum in Glendive. The Billings Gazette reported in 2009 that the family’s foundation had donated T. rex and acrocanthosaurus exhibits for the museum’s main display hall.

The Gianforte foundation has also given to Montana State University, which renamed its computer science department the Gianforte School of Computing in exchange for an $8 million donation announced in 2016. 

Many recipients of the Gianfortes’ philanthropy are right-leaning organizations that work on politically contentious conservative causes including the 501(c)(3) arm of the Montana Family Foundation, which advocates for “traditional family values.” The Gianforte foundation has also provided recurring support to several anti-abortion women’s health clinics and the Alliance for Choice in Education, which offers low-income K-12 students scholarships to private schools and advocates for school choice.

Gianforte describes himself as staunchly pro-life. He said in an interview with MTFP that he personally believes marriage should be “between one man and one woman,” but he accepts the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling to the contrary.

“The underlying driver in my life, of my faith, is to use the skills I’ve been given to serve other people,” he said. “And our First Amendment guarantees every American the freedom to believe whatever they want and to speak it.”

Gianforte has spent heavily out of pocket on his campaigns, prompting criticism from Democrats that he’s trying to buy his way into office. An MTFP analysis of state and federal campaign filings indicates that Greg and Susan Gianforte have collectively made $12.7 million in publicly disclosed political contributions to Gianforte’s campaigns and other GOP causes since 2010.

Most of that money has gone to Gianforte’s two campaigns for governor. Including loans and in-kind support, he invested $6.7 million of his own money into his 2016 campaign. As of the state’s Sept. 15 filing deadline, he has put $3.8 million, including in-kind contributions, into this year’s run. Gianforte also contributed $141,000 and $1.1 million, respectively, into his 2017 and 2018 campaigns for the U.S. House.

In addition to self-financing of his campaign, Gianforte had reported more than $3 million in cash campaign contributions through the state’s September campaign finance deadline, for a fundraising total of $6.9 million.

THE STATESMAN

If Gianforte is the ambitious businessman looking to shake up Helena, Cooney is the old hand around the Capitol — the affable guy who’s served in just about every leadership role that state government offers. The Capitol building actually has a Mike Cooney Conference Room, a name bestowed in 2001 by Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown to recognize Cooney’s work leading a multi-year Capitol restoration effort. 

“I’ve been the chief executive of a statewide office. I’m now lieutenant governor. I’ve served in the Legislature. I have a pretty good understanding of how this whole process works,” Cooney said in a Sept. 7 interview in a conference room at his campaign office in Helena. “I haven’t built up a billion-dollar industry, but I’ve done a lot that I think translates extremely well to keeping government running and running it efficiently.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and state Rep. Joel Krautter show off their Montana flag socks during the 2019 legislative session. Credit: Tom Ferris / Montana Historical Society

Cooney, 66, was born to a Montana family in Washington, D.C. and raised in Butte. His grandfather, Frank Henry Cooney, served briefly as Montana’s governor in the 1930s, and he got into politics young, earning a degree in political science at the University of Montana and winning a seat in the Montana House in 1977. He represented Butte for two terms, and then spent nearly a decade working as an aide for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in Montana and Washington, D.C., before winning election as Montana’s secretary of state in 1989.

He spent three terms as secretary of state, running the office that manages business records and oversees Montana elections. Facing term limits in that office, he made a bid for governor in 2000 but lost the Democratic primary.

Cooney then took a job running a government-adjacent nonprofit, Montana Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, and later moved on to a series of administrative positions in the Montana Department of Labor & Industry. In addition to those jobs, Cooney returned to elected office as a legislator, winning a Senate seat representing Helena in 2002 and serving as the Senate president during the 2007 Legislature. He served two four-year terms as a state senator, leaving office after the 2010 election.

Cooney was appointed as Bullock’s third lieutenant governor in 2015, following John Walsh’s appointment to the U.S. Senate, and Angela McLean’s departure after her relationship with Bullock apparently soured. At the time, MSU political science professor David Parker told Lee Newspapers he saw the move as a safe pick for Bullock after the governor had cycled through two other lieutenants in his first term, saying Bullock needed “somebody that was going to be competent and not raise any hackles.” Cooney was Bullock’s running mate when the governor fended off Gianforte’s challenge in the 2016 election.

As lieutenant governor, Cooney has had a fairly low profile, taking on jobs such as chairing the Montana Complete Count Committee, the task force that encourages Montanans to participate in the 2020 census. According to his official biography, he also chairs the governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee and the state Labor-Management Advisory Council.

Cooney’s wife, DeeAnn, is an attorney who served briefly as a district court judge in Helena. She was appointed by Bullock to fill a vacancy on the bench in 2015, then lost a judicial election to Mike McMahon in 2016. The family has three adult children, all living in Montana.

COONEY’S PLATFORM

Cooney says the next administration’s biggest task will be pulling Montana through the pandemic and rebuilding the state’s economy.

“No. 1, we’ve got to keep our people healthy,” he said. “We cannot have a thriving economy if we don’t have healthy people.”

Beyond that, Cooney points to three key issues that drive him: public lands, public education, and health care access. He tends to frame those issues in defensive terms, touting progressive victories achieved by the Bullock administration and arguing that Republican control of the statehouse under Gianforte would set those causes back.

For example, Cooney has attacked Gianforte’s support for repealing the Affordable Care Act. That federal legislation, also known as Obamacare, prevents insurance companies from turning away customers with preexisting conditions and authorizes expanded Medicaid programs in Montana and other states.

Gianforte has been highly critical of the ACA, blaming it for driving up health care costs. He says he supports protections for patients with preexisting conditions and Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, but hasn’t offered a detailed explanation about how those popular ACA provisions could be retained if the law is nullified by a pending U.S. Supreme Court case where the Trump administration has argued it should be struck down in its entirety.

Cooney has campaigned on the Bullock administration’s success in renewing the state Medicaid expansion program through a bipartisan bill passed by the 2019 Legislature. In addition to making it easier for lower-income Montanans to access health care, he says, that legislation helped shore up the finances of rural hospitals. He argues that losing the ACA would undermine that progress.

“You do away with the ACA, people with preexisting conditions get thrown off. Ninety thousand Montanans who are on Medicaid expansion, they get thrown off. Our rural health structure is put at risk,” he said.

Cooney has also attacked Gianforte for the Republican’s support of private schools and a late-2000s legal dispute between Gianforte and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks over a fishing access easement on his family’s Bozeman-area property, using the latter as ammunition to argue that Gianforte won’t be a strong advocate for recreational access to public lands. Gianforte has described the FWP incident as an effort to work through a “surveying error.”

In some cases, Cooney’s attacks on Gianforte have talked past the Republican’s stated campaign positions. For example, Cooney and other Democrats have repeatedly accused Gianforte of backing a statewide sales tax, citing 2002 testimony in which Gianforte lobbied a state advisory council to replace Montana’s income tax with a sales tax.

While Gianforte has said during this campaign cycle that he would veto a sales tax, writing in a policy plan that he “opposes a sales tax under any circumstance,” Cooney dismisses the pledge as untrustworthy. 

Cooney has expressed staunch opposition to a statewide sales tax, though he supported legislation as a state senator that would have let more Montana communities put local option sales tax proposals before their voters. The Gianforte campaign has also accused Cooney of harboring statewide sales tax sympathies himself, pointing to an unintroduced bill draft Cooney requested before the 2005 legislative session.   

If elected governor, Cooney says he also wants to provide incentives for childcare providers and develop a state-funded preschool program. Public preschool has been a longtime policy priority for Montana Democrats, who note that Montana is one of only a handful of states that don’t offer public preschool programs, and point to research indicating that early childhood education programs save public money in the long run by helping students achieve better academic outcomes and reducing eventual reliance on social service programs.

“Pre-K is one of those things that I believe is very important to Montanans,” Cooney said. “And we will find the money to do it. And we will push it forward.”

LOOKING AHEAD

With the COVID-19 pandemic battering Montana’s economy, and by extension the income taxes that provide most of the state’s revenues, there’s a good chance the next governor will be challenged to balance a policy agenda with a budget crunch.

The state’s rainy day accounts are currently full, with approximately $500 million dollars in reserve, but legislative analysts expect the pandemic to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue over the coming year alone. Depending on how the pandemic downturn progresses, and whether the U.S. Congress provides states with funds to bail out their budgets, Montana could see a fiscal crisis in the coming years.

In contrast to the federal government, which routinely runs a deficit, the Montana Constitution requires the state to pass a balanced budget for each two-year fiscal cycle. Legislators and the governor have two ways to fill budget holes that can’t be supplanted by the state’s reserve accounts: tax more, or spend less. While Democrats including Cooney have floated the idea of tax increases that target wealthier Montanans, that approach appears to be a non-starter for the Legislature’s current GOP leadership.

In interviews, neither Gianforte nor Cooney provided detail about specific portions of the state budget they would target if budget cuts become unavoidable.

Gianforte, who has said he’d like to hold the line on new spending and cut state taxes, said he would try to protect education and law enforcement spending. 

“This is what I’ve done my whole life in business. I’ve balanced a lot of budgets in my day, and we’ve had runaway spending at the state level for a long time,” he said. “Total state spending has gone up 60% in the last 10 years.”

According to an MTFP analysis of data compiled by the National Association of State Budget Officers, per-capita spending by state government, unadjusted for inflation, rose by 42%, to about $6,600 per state resident, between 2008 and 2018. About half that increase was driven by portions of the state budget that are funded by federal dollars, a category that includes the vast majority of the spending resulting from Montana’s Medicaid expansion program.

Cooney said he will resist budget cuts, noting that the bulk of the state’s spending supports three service areas: education, health care and the state prison system. If Republican lawmakers insist on spending reductions, he said, he’d push them to articulate where they’d like the ax to fall, and be realistic about the implications.

“You make cuts in mental health services, what happens? Then it comes back to corrections. And then our policemen and our law enforcement people are dealing with mental health issues on the street,” he said. “We need to be dealing with these things up-front.”

Through September, Cooney reported $2.5 million in campaign fundraising, without any self-financing.

More information on the governor’s race, including a database of media coverage and detailed campaign finance information, is available at apps.montanafreepress.org/montana-2020/races/Governor.


On the issues

Health care

Both candidates say they support Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, though Gianforte has expressed interest in limiting enrollment as a cost-control measure and has supported repealing the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes the program.

Environment

In Congress, Gianforte introduced unsuccessful legislation that would have removed Wilderness Study Area designations from about 800,000 acres in Montana, an action opposed by environmental groups. He also says that as governor he wants to streamline permitting processes at state environmental agencies to promote natural resource development, saying he thinks it’s possible to balance development with environmental protection.

Gianforte has touted legislation he ushered through Congress to prohibit new mining claims on public land north of Yellowstone National Park and designate a stretch of East Rosebud Creek as a Wild and Scenic River, saying those protections were supported by local leaders. His formal policy plan doesn’t mention “climate change.”

Cooney has criticized Gianforte about the wilderness designation bills and says he wants the state to take progressive action to fight climate change and create incentives to help the state transition to renewable energy sources.

Public lands

Democrats criticize Gianforte for being allegedly open to shifting federal lands to state ownership, which they say could eventually lead to public lands ending up in private ownership. Gianforte has criticized how federally owned lands are managed, but denied he supports shifting them to state ownership in an Oct. 6 debate hosted by Montana PBS, saying, “I oppose the transfer to the state of federal lands.” 

Cooney has called himself a champion for public land access and says he wants to find ways to increase access to landlocked public lands and strengthen state conservation programs. Gianforte also says he wants to work on expanding public land access, balancing that effort with private property rights.

Abortion

Gianforte describes himself as staunchly pro-life and supports the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who could tip the balance of the court toward reversing the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. “I think life is precious and needs to be protected,” he said at the Oct. 6 debate. “But I abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court.”

Earlier this year, Gianforte and other GOP congressional lawmakers signed on to an amicus brief urging the court to overturn the Roe decision.

Cooney supports abortion access, framing the issue in terms of privacy. “I believe that a woman should have the right to make the most personal health care decisions in her life and government has no business being involved,” he said at the Oct. 6 debate.

LGBTQ issues

Gianforte said he personally believes marriage should be “between one man and one woman,” but respects the court ruling that legalized gay marriage. His family foundation has donated to groups that oppose LGBTQ rights and he has opposed local nondiscrimination ordinances intended to provide legal protections for LGBTQ Montanans in some communities. He said in an interview that he believes “discrimination is wrong,” adding that he also considers it important to protect First Amendment rights to religious expression.

Cooney has spoken at LGBTQ pride events and said in an interview with an MTFP reporter on the Shared State podcast that he doesn’t believe people should be subject to discrimination in employment, housing, or health care based on sexual identity.

Gun control

Gianforte is endorsed by the National Rifle Association and said at the Oct. 6 debate that he would sign a “constitutional carry” bill to let Montanans carry handguns without a permit. Cooney also describes himself as a “supporter of the Second Amendment,” and says gun ownership rights should be balanced with “the safety of our communities.”

Public education

Cooney is endorsed by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union that represents teachers and other public employees. He says he opposes using public money to support private schools, citing concern that such support would siphon limited funding away from the public school system.

Gianforte has been a major financial supporter of a private school in Bozeman and has been a staunch advocate for school choice, saying alternatives to the public system can boost opportunity by giving parents and students more educational options. In debates, he has acknowledged that rural Montana communities may not have enough students to support private schools in addition to public ones.

Gianforte has also argued that Montana teachers are paid too little, though he said he believes that can be addressed by cutting administrative costs instead of allocating additional education funding.

Economic policy

Gianforte and Cooney both say the state should encourage “value-added agriculture” initiatives like Montana-based meat-processing plants. Both candidates also want to prioritize rural broadband connectivity and have voiced support for vocational training programs designed to give workers paths toward good jobs in skilled trades.

Gianforte says he’ll pursue regulatory reform and cut property and income taxes in an effort to boost the Montana economy. Cooney emphasizes education investment and efforts to make childcare more affordable for working mothers. He has also expressed interest in measures that would raise taxes for higher-income Montanans, saying that would make Montana’s tax system more fair.

COVID-19

Gianforte has said he’d prefer to avoid heavy-handed public health measures as governor.

“I trust Montanans with their health and the health of their loved ones,” he said in an interview with MTFP. “We should be passing policy to protect the most vulnerable. But I would be relying more on personal responsibility and not on mandates.”

Cooney said he believes the state’s mask mandate isn’t strict enough, and that it should not exempt counties with fewer than four active COVID-19 cases.

“The virus doesn’t know county boundaries. People travel all over the place,” he said in an interview with MTFP.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.