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September 14, 2023

Kalispell Democrat and former firearms industry executive Ryan Busse launched his 2024 gubernatorial campaign Thursday, taking aim at Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in a guns, trucks and mounted-bucks heavy campaign video that features a classic Montana political ad motif: the candidate shooting at symbolic representations of policies they oppose. (See: Brian Schweitzer, at least twiceMatt Rosendale, others.)

The video shows the Busse family launching clay pigeons that read “20% Property Tax Increase,” “Anti-Choice,” “No River Access” — a reference to Gianforte’s 2009 lawsuit challenging a public easement on a river abutting his property — and “Defunding Public Schools” as Busse, occasionally grunting with disgust, blasts them with a shotgun. 

It’s all emblematic of the kind of positioning Democrats in Montana have long employed in search of elected office — to be liberal, but in a plausibly conservative fashion. The third paragraph of the press release announcing his candidacy notes that Busse is a former Republican. In the final scene of the video, Busse launches a target that reads “Busse Can’t Shoot,” a statement his 15-year-old son, Badge, ballistically contradicts. 

“They’re going to lie and say we can’t shoot,” Busse says. 

Busse told Capitolized Thursday that he, his family and friends are all worried about the same thing: “This state becoming unlivable for working people.”

He said Gianforte is part of a radical right-wing shift in the state in favor of a privileged class of wealthy landholders and in contravention of the supposed Montana values so often evoked during campaign season. 

“My Montana is a place where hardworking people make a good living for themselves, raise their kids with equal opportunity,” Busse says in the launch video. “Unfortunately the Montana that I love, and that my kids have been raised in, is being threatened right now. It pisses me off that Greg Gianforte just wants to sell this state to his rich buddies and turn it into a playground so only they can afford to live and play here.”

Busse was an executive at gun manufacturer Kimber until 2020 — a year before he rose to national prominence with the publication of his memoir, “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America,” which details how a Kansas boy who grew up around guns came to work in the industry he thought he loved, only to become disillusioned with successive mass shootings and the dovetailing of the gun industry with right-wing politics. He’s now a senior adviser to the gun violence prevention organization Giffords. 

“I saw what happens when unquestioning radical loyalty takes over something that you care about, and how that can morph into really damaging things,” Busse said Thursday. 

His sons, Badge and Lander, were among the plaintiffs in Montana’s landmark youth climate lawsuit. 

Busse said voters are particularly animated about rising property taxes. The Republican supermajority this year failed the state by not rebalancing taxes between property classes as lawmakers had done in previous sessions, he said, and regressive income tax cuts aren’t helping. 

“To be frank with you, the fix is not a hard fix,” he said. 

He’s also upset about what he sees as a departure from science-based wildlife and lands management, which he said is eroding Montana’s recent tradition of aggressive wildlife conservation mixed with robust public access. 

“I feel our crisis here is getting worse with the supermajority,” he said.

Busse is the only Democrat who has filed in the race. It’s assumed that Gov. Greg Gianforte will run for re-election, but he’s yet to confirm his intent to do so or file campaign paperwork for 2024. If he does run, he’ll face a primary challenge from freshman state Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside

Elsewhere on the statewide ballot, Democratic newspaper publisher and legislative candidate Jesse Mullen is running for Montana secretary of state. Mullen, who held a formal campaign launch event in Butte this week, is the only candidate registered to run for the position, though incumbent Republican Christi Jacobsen is eligible for re-election. Mullen announced an endorsement from former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday and has also promoted Busse’s campaign on social media. On Wednesday, he shared a post featuring images of several bald and balding public figures, an eclectic mix including Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Bernie Sanders, and yes, Jesse Mullen and Ryan Busse.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit


“I’m just giving you a message. I implore the superintendent to find substantiation for these allegations and let us know and let the public know. Because if there are school districts across the state that are accommodating children who want to identify as cats by putting cat litter boxes in the schools, the citizens of those districts ought to know that. But if there’s no substantiation, I strongly suggest that the superintendent put an end to this.”

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, addressing an employee of the Office of Public Instruction during a Wednesday meeting of the Montana Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Committee. Bedey requested that the message be relayed to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen in response to her recent claim that OPI has evidence of litter boxes in Montana classrooms. So far, the only supporting information Arntzen’s office has provided are references to unsubstantiated allegations made to the superintendent by individual citizens during talk radio appearances. Bedey, who said he also articulated his concern in a recent letter to Arntzen, added Wednesday that “I am not persuaded that what people hear on talk radio shows constitutes substantiation of something that is so irritating to the public.”

Alex Sakariassen

Mystery Super PAC Spends Big Against Sheehy

Politico reported this week that a super PAC called “Last Best Place PAC” spent $134,000 on a broadcast and cable television ad that knocks Montana Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy for being a multimillionaire who “got rich off government contracts” and whose company received a $774,000 Paycheck Protection Plan loan that was forgiven in full by the federal government 

The PAC, which registered last week, has ties to national Democrats, Politico reported. Its registration paperwork with the Federal Election Commission lists Amalgamated Bank, “the bank of choice for many prominent Democratic groups, including the Democratic National Committee,” Politico reported. 

Politico also noted that the company that bought the ad time, Mountain Media Agency, uses the same address in Arlington, Va., as Democratic-aligned Old Town Media. 

The PAC will not need to report the sources of its income until next year. David Lewis is the group’s treasurer. On Thursday, Capitolized confirmed that the individual is longtime Republican state Sen. Dave Lewis, who served in the Legislature from 2001 to 2015. Lewis, who said he quit the GOP over issues like abortion and mostly considers himself a Libertarian, declined to comment on the PAC’s possible connections to Democrats, but provided a written statement:

“As a longtime Montanan, I’m very concerned about the changes we are seeing in Montana,” Lewis said. “Now we have another wealthy out-of-stater from the Yellowstone Club crowd who has decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Let him spend a few more years learning about Montana before he takes a run at the Senate. Montanans deserve to know who Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked millionaire candidate really is.”

Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and the owner of Belgrade-based Bridger Aerospace, announced his candidacy to take on incumbent Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester earlier this year. Sheehy has the backing of prominent Republicans both in Washington, D.C., and in Montana, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee — which is headed by Montana’s other U.S. senator, Steve Daines — Gov. Greg Gianforte and Congressman Ryan Zinke.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

See the full Busse campaign launch ad on X, formerly Twitter.

State superintendent Arntzen claims to have evidence for litter boxes in Montana schools

Nine months before the Montana GOP primary, a mysterious super PAC is on the airwaves attacking Tim Sheehy, Politico reports.