Gary Buchanan for Congress Montana
U.S. House candidate Gary Buchanan, who is running as an independent, at a rally outside the state Capitol in Helena April 8, 2022. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

HELENA — As he launches a rare independent campaign to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale for the privilege of representing eastern Montana in the U.S. House, Billings businessman Gary Buchanan is running without the support of a major political party — but with backing from some of the state’s preeminent elder statesmen.

Buchanan, who has held appointed positions in state government as far back as the 1980s, was formally endorsed at a Friday rally at the state Capitol by Democrat Dorothy Bradley and Republican Marc Racicot, who ran against each other in the state’s 1992 election for governor.

All three argued that Buchanans’ campaign represents a chance for voters in Montana’s eastern district, which includes Billings, Great Falls and Helena, to choose something other than the divisive partisanship that has come to dominate Montana politics in recent years.

“Gary’s whole life has been involved with strong and safe communities in Montana in an effort to preserve our democracy, and the independence, the freedom, and the way of life that we all cherish,” said Racicot, who served two terms as Montana governor after winning the 1992 election, chaired the Republican National Committee in the early 2000s, and was chairman of President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

In his remarks, Buchanan lamented excessive partisanship in Montana politics, saying he believes there is a sizable middle among the state’s electorate, what he called “an eight-lane highway” down the middle of the political spectrum.

“In Montana, so many of us get along. Why do we let our politicians tear us apart?” he asked.

Rosendale’s campaign responded Friday by calling Buchanan “a Democrat out to mislead Montanans.”

“Matt has worked to fight back against Biden’s out-of-control spending and the government overreach that has caused record inflation and is costing Montanans thousands of dollars,” Rosendale spokesperson Shelby DeMars said in an email. “Buchanan is out to do the opposite — he has a track record of working to advance Democrat policies.”

DeMars also called Racicot, who has said publicly that he voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 because of concerns with former President Donald Trump’s character, a “Biden-loyalist.”

Buchanan, who runs Buchanan Capital in Billings, has been a fixture in Montana’s public life for decades, serving in state government positions under both Republican and Democratic governors.

He helped create the Montana Department of Commerce, serving as its first director under Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden, according to a 2006 profile in the Billings Gazette. He also led a major reorganization of state government under Racicot.

According to a resume provided by his campaign, he also served on the Montana Banking Board, Montana Board of Investments, Board of Crime Control, Montana Chamber of Commerce Board and Montana PBS Board.

Asked in an interview Friday why he isn’t running for Congress as a Democrat, Buchanan said he’s “never liked party politics.”

“I’ve been independent for my whole career. And I think an independent has a good chance. I would have been an independent regardless, but I think an independent has a better chance of winning this race,” he said.

He also cited political dysfunction within the Democratic Party, saying debates on subjects like Biden’s Build Back Better proposal have devolved into a “circular firing squad.”

“The Democrats have made themselves so weak nationally that I’ve got to be an independent when it comes to that kind of activity,” he said.

Buchanan also said he is disheartened by some of the legislation coming out of the Republican-dominated Montana Legislature last year. He said he believes the party has been overly “obsessed” with voter fraud in crafting election administration laws and criticized House Bill 702 — which prevents private businesses like Buchanan Capital from accounting for the COVID-19 vaccination status of employees or customers — as a heavy-handed government intervention.

“I don’t think this Legislature had any discipline when it came to overreach. I don’t think they even discussed overreach,” he said.

In his remarks Friday, Buchanan also took aim at Rosendale’s posture on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, criticizing the congressman as “part of the pro-Putin part of the Republican Party.”

“I would not embarrass you on issues like national defense, Ukraine and NATO,” Buchanan said.

Rosendale has been among the members of Congress most resistant to endorsing American support for Ukrainian defense efforts. Prior to the Russian invasion, he co-sponsored a bill to prohibit military assistance for the eastern European country until the U.S. finishes building a wall on the border with Mexico. He was also one of only three U.S. representatives to vote against a largely symbolic resolution urging support for Ukraine last month.

In order to qualify for the November ballot as an independent candidate, Buchanan’s campaign needs to collect signatures from 8,722 voters by May 31. He said Friday that he won’t be using paid signature gatherers as his campaign works to reach that threshold.

In addition to Bradley and Racicot, several notable figures in Buchanan’s campaign hail from Montana’s old guard political establishment. His campaign treasurer is Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican who served as state budget director under Democratic and Republican governors and then served in the Montana Senate. Among others present supporting Buchanan at Friday’s rally were former State Auditor Monica Lindeen, a Democrat, and Bob Brown, a former secretary of state who was the GOP nominee for governor in 2004 (Brown left the Republican party in 2020, citing what he called President Trump’s “ignorant and irresponsible leadership”).

If Buchanan finds traction with current Montana’s voters, he could complicate what had looked like a smooth path to re-election for Rosendale, who is seeking his second term in the U.S. House.

Rosendale, who currently represents the statewide congressional district allocated to Montana prior to the 2020 redistricting cycle, announced his re-election bid in January. While serving in Congress, he has built a reputation as a stalwart hardline Republican, drawing ire from Democrats and some moderate Montanans. 

Rosendale, for example, was one of 21 House Republicans who voted against awarding congressional gold medals to police officers who protected the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 riot, where Trump supporters disrupted the electoral vote counting that formally declared Biden president-elect with violence that led to several deaths. That measure, which described the rioters as “a mob of insurrectionists,” passed the U.S. Senate unanimously.

Rosendale was also one of 14 Republicans who voted last year against making June 19, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday recognizing the end of slavery. In a statement, he argued that the push for the holiday was “an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”

Like most other Republicans, Rosendale also voted against the Democrat-backed American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which are directing billions of dollars in spending to Montana but have been accused by opponents of unnecessarily driving up the national debt and fueling inflation.

As he filed for re-election, Rosendale’s campaign touted his opposition to vaccination mandates and the Biden administration’s “massive spending bills.”

“Now more than ever, it’s obvious that Democrat leadership in Washington doesn’t care how their actions impact everyday Montanans,” Rosendale said in a statement at the time. “I hope that the people of our state will allow me to continue to stand up for their individual liberties and fight back against the out-of-control spending and government overreach in D.C.”

The eastern Montana congressional district leans heavily Republican, in part because Democrats on the commission that drew new congressional boundaries last year pushed to include left-leaning Bozeman in the western district so the party’s western Montana candidates would have less of an uphill fight.

One Democrat running in the eastern district, state Sen. Mark Sweeny, is a western Montana resident who lives in Philipsburg (he was raised in Miles City, his campaign says). Also in the eastern district Democratic primary field are former Billings City Council member Penny Ronning and Billings resident Skylar Williams.

While three other Republican candidates have filed to challenge Rosendale in the June primary, he has been officially endorsed by the state Republican Party and had more than $900,000 in banked campaign funds as of the end of 2021, according to federal campaign finance filings.

The other candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the eastern congressional district are Billings pharmacist Kyle Austin, Bozeman resident James Boyette, and Charles Walking Child of Helena. Libertarians Sam Rankin of Billings, Roger Roots of Livingston and Samuel Thomas of Missoula have also filed for the office.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.