BELGRADE — At a Wednesday press conference at a John Deere dealership, Republican governor candidate and Attorney General Tim Fox announced former Bozeman legislator Jon Knokey as his running mate.
Fox is in a competitive primary with U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who has not yet announced with whom he'll share the ticket; and Kalispell state Sen. Al Olzsewski, who is running with fellow state Sen. Kenneth Bogner, of Miles City.
Knokey served his first term in the state House in the 2017 session and had filed to run again before withdrawing in July 2018. He said Wednesday he left that race because his employer, John Deere, was changing CEOs and his work at the time was too demanding to allow for the run. Knokey is a corporate strategy manager at the tractor company.
On Wednesday as campaign supporters looked on, including prominent Republican state legislators like Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad and Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, Knokey said his reasons for joining the ticket were based on his family and "the Montana family."
"It's about uniting the Montana family. You must put the Montana family first. We too often fight Republican versus Democrat, rural Montana versus urban Montana, or the collar we wear — blue or white. But change is not about division and polarization. Our Montana opportunities and challenges require grit and leadership, not politics," Knokey said.
As a lawmaker, Knokey passed a bill that would have spent $10.2 million to increase pay for people who work with those who have developmental disabilities or are elderly, but that was derailed by budget cuts following a special legislative session later that year.
He also passed a bill that would have have stipulated that Medicaid appropriations be only used to pay for or administer Medicaid services. But that was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who said the bill was too restrictive on the health department's budgeting process and could have affected other services.
Fox has zeroed in on Gianforte as his main opponent, and as the election intensifies has become more aggressive in his criticism of the congressman. That continued and was echoed by Knokey in Wednesday's press conference. Republicans have identified taking back the governor's office, which has been held by Democrats for what will be 16 years by the end of Bullock's time in office, as a top priority for 2020.
In recent years, the party has dealt with internal division among its state lawmakers, the majority party in the Legislature. A group who brand themselves the "Solutions Caucus" have found support from Democrats to pass legislation like Medicaid expansion. Other Republicans, who in the House called themselves the "38 Special" as a reference to the numbers in their group, sometimes call the other faction "RINOS," for "Republicans In Name Only." Buttrey and Jones, who were at the press conference, are leaders in the Solutions Caucus.
Knokey said Fox is a stronger general election candidate than Gianforte, rattling off numbers from the 2016 election when Fox got 96,000 more votes in his race for attorney general in than Gianforte got in his bid for governor that year. Fox was seeking a second term against Democrat Larry Jent, who ran a minimal campaign, while Gianforte was making his first run for governor.
"In 2016, that year Trump carried Montana. We won every single statewide seat except one — the governor's chair. This will not happen with Tim as a Republican nominee," Knokey said. " … We must elect the Republican who can win in November. … If we are united in electing a Republican, we only have one choice: that man right there, Tim Fox."
Knokey also took a jab at how much money Gianforte's campaign and Gianforte himself spent in that election. The 2016 governor's race was the most expensive in state history, with spending by the candidates and outside groups reaching $16 million. Gianforte, who sold his Bozeman tech company to Oracle in 2012 for $1.8 billion, also put in $5.8 million of his own money. So far this election Gianforte has loaned or spent about $72,000 of his own money on the campaign.
"Money does not buy happiness," Knokey said. "Money does not buy elections in Montana."
Gianforte's campaign responded to Fox's running mate selection by sending out a press release pointing out Gianforte has raised more than any other candidate running for governor this year, about $1.4 million, and recently bought $300,000 worth of television ads.
“Greg is the clear front-runner in this race," said Gianforte campaign manager Jake Eaton. "His wide lead in the (internal campaign) polls, record-breaking fundraising, early television advertising, and enthusiasm on the ground continue to show he’s the strongest candidate in the race. He’ll keep talking with Montanans in every corner of our state about his business leadership experience, his conservative record, and his hopeful, optimistic vision for Montana.”
Knokey attended Montana State University, where he played quarterback on the football team. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children.
The governor's seat is open in 2020 as Bullock is termed out from running again.
Three Democrats are running in their party's primary for governor: Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney; Whitney Williams, a Missoula businesswoman who is the daughter of Carol and Pat Williams; and state Rep. Casey Schreiner, of Great Falls. None has announced a running mate yet.
In the 2016 governor's race, Gianforte ran with Leslie Robinson, who was then a county commissioner in Phillips County.