Gary Buchanan smiling podium
Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

U.S. House candidate Gary Buchanan, running an independent campaign to represent central and eastern Montana in Congress, has likely collected the 8,722 signatures necessary to get his name on the November ballot without being nominated by a political party, according to a preliminary count provided Wednesday by state election administrators.

A report from the Montana secretary of state, current as of 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, indicates that county election officials have accepted 13,313 signatures from petitioners supporting Buchanan’s candidacy. Before Buchanan is officially qualified for the ballot, those signatures must also be certified by the secretary of state’s office.

Buchanan said Tuesday that he is excited by the enthusiasm his campaign had generated, but wants to be cautious until a final determination is confirmed by the secretary of state.

“I’m not going to proclaim any success in this venture until we’re certified,” he said.

The report also indicates that Buchanan’s campaign had submitted another 1,628 signatures that were rejected, most because they were deemed illegible, duplicative, or from people who weren’t registered to vote in the district. That gives the first review of Buchanan’s signature collection an 11% rejection rate.

In order for Buchanan to miss the threshold for qualifying for the ballot, the secretary of state would have to find 4,592 of the 13,313 tentatively accepted signatures invalid, a 34% rejection rate.

Buchanan, a Billings financial advisor, is running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican, in Montana’s newly drawn eastern congressional district. The race also includes three other Republicans, two active Democrats and three Libertarians. The fields of party-affiliated candidates will be narrowed to a single nominee for each party in the primary election scheduled for next Tuesday, June 7.

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Independent candidacies for state and federal offices are rare in Montana, with most general election contests involving Democratic, Republican and Libertarian candidates. Most recently, independent Caron Cooper made an unaffiliated bid for a seat on the Montana Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulation board, in 2016, placing third behind Democratic and Republican contenders. 

Successful independent campaigns for Congress have been exceedingly rare in modern American politics as well. A tabulation by Wikipedia, for example, counts only five members of Congress who have served as independents since 1961, four of whom were first elected with support from the Republican or Democratic parties. (The sole exception is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was elected to represent Vermont as an independent in Congress in 1991.)

Buchanan has served in state economic development roles under Democratic and Republican governors and is campaigning with support from old-guard political figures of both parties, including former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and Democrat Dorothy Bradley. He has been highly critical of Rosendale, who is seeking re-election after his first term representing Montana’s existing statewide congressional district, arguing that the Republican’s hardline record in Washington, D.C. has been too extreme to effectively represent Montana’s interests.

Rosendale’s campaign has responded by arguing that Buchanan wouldn’t provide the state with staunchly conservative representation to push back on policy agendas advanced by Democratic President Joe Biden.

Buchanan said this week that if he makes the ballot his next step will be to consult with the volunteers who gathered signatures on his behalf, using what they’ve heard from potential voters to hone a policy agenda for the general election campaign.

“There’s a hell of a lot of enthusiasm generated, from where we sit,” he said.

Update: Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen officially confirmed June 15, 2022 that Buchanan had gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November General Election ballot.

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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.