On an unseasonably warm November day almost a year ago on the third story of the Capitol building, Republican leaders in the state made their intentions clear.
They would lay a path, paved with party unity, that over the next two years would lead to a Republican winning the governor's race in 2020. For what will be 16 years by Election Day, Democrats have held the office.
But Gov. Steve Bullock is termed out and running a long-shot campaign for president, so the seat is wide open. Republicans recognize the opportunity as their best chance in four election cycles to take back something they have long felt should be theirs.
The landscape should work in their favor. Montana hasn't supported a Democrat for president in 27 years, a time before the youngest lawmaker among them had been born. Two of three men making up the state’s congressional delegation are Republicans. Far more often than not, Republicans had been the party in control of the Legislature, their dominance solidified over the last seven years. In 2016 they’d swept all but one of the statewide elected offices, save the white whale of the governor's race.
Now all they needed was a candidate. Or candidates, the plural of the word being on the minds of those looking to the June primary next year and the hopefuls it would attract. Candidates who sit, if not at opposite sides, at least not shoulder-to-shoulder under the big tent, as they liked to call their party’s spectrum of ideas from far-right to more moderate.
One name was already assumed, Republican Attorney General Tim Fox. After eight years as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, many believed — rightly — Fox would next set his sights on big corner office in the east wing of the Capitol. He announced his candidacy in January, and some felt the seat was his for the taking, had been for years.
Except for the swirling buzz that another heavy hitter in the party might join — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, fresh off a reelection victory to his seat and equipped with more experience, name recognition and electoral success than the first time he ran for governor in 2016 against Bullock.
Gianforte confirmed the rumors in June, announcing at the statewide Republican officers' convention. His decision prompted another declared candidate to vacate the race, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who instead is now running for the seat Gianforte is vacating.
State Sen. Albert Olszewski, who stood in front of melting snow on the Capitol steps in April to declare his governor candidacy, stayed in the race after Gianforte's announcement. Battle-worn after an intense GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2018, Olszewski is no stranger to competing against his fellow party members and has no intention of stepping aside to let the Fox vs. Gianforte showdown take top billing.
Given the mood and increasingly divisive nature of the national political landscape, it could set things up for a more intense primary fight than Montana has seen before, political analyst and University of Montana professor Lee Banville said last week.
“You have what could turn out to be a knock-down, drag-out fight for … it’s cliche, but for the soul of the party,” Banville said. “I think that’s where we’re heading with the Republican Party right now. These are very different candidates and they’re representing different ways of governing, and I think it will be a hard-fought primary.”
Fox tested the waters first with a few digs at Gianforte during the June officers' convention, criticizing Republicans who could seek re-election to the seat they hold now but instead are looking for different jobs. That, of course, includes Gianforte.
In a recent interview in Butte, Fox repeated those concerns, saying as he travels the state, he hears frustration about the game of musical chairs voters feel Republicans are playing. If there was any lack of clarity on whether his comments extended to Gianforte, Fox added that the congressman’s choice to run for governor, in his view, costs Montana seniority in D.C.
"It is not only a net loser for the party, it is a net loser for Montana. If we truly believe in what we espouse about good conservative government, then it’s our obligation when we seek and obtain these offices to hold them as long as we can,” Fox said.
On a trip through the state in early August — an aggressive travel schedule that included visits to towns at the far west and east corners of Montana, and more than a few places in between — Gianforte sat down after meeting with a large group of nonprofit leaders in Helena to explain that hearing from Montanans is why he’s now a gubernatorial candidate.
“I am honored to serve the state of Montana. I reached out to hundreds and hundreds of people over a six-month period and asked them, 'What should I do?' And the overwhelming feedback I got was, 'With your business experience and with your executive administration experience, we need you in Helena.’ And I took that that input,’” Gianforte said.
Fox is relying on his eight years as attorney general as a major selling point in his campaign. That includes a massive undertaking to address human trafficking, building a broad coalition including lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to pass legislation and reaching out to private partners, like in the trucking industry, to raise awareness.
He’s taken a similar approach to tackle the rising abuse of methamphetamine and opioids in the state and made a focus of testing a large backlog of sexual assault evidence kits. He wants to bring many of those same fights to the governor’s office.
But he also emphasized things outside the attorney general's purview, such as “getting government out of the way of job creators,” with a focus on agriculture, small businesses and the natural resources sector — mostly by easing regulations and opening the way for permitting.
In a speech promoting his candidacy at the statewide officers' convention in June, however, Fox focused much more on a national Republican rallying point — building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, tying this longtime promise of President Donald Trump to drug problems in Montana.
Banville said that approach could be Fox trying to appeal to GOP primary voters.
“I believe that the Gianforte, Fox and Olszewski race is pushing Fox further to the right at this point,” Banville said. “He’s come out much harder-core about immigration and a couple other issues where, not that he was a moderate, but he just really didn’t make it central to his campaign. … It’s swinging toward more conservative, or at least stressing his more conservative credentials.”
Fox sharply dismissed the notion he's shifted any of his views.
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“I will challenge you to choose anything that would suggest I’m anything other than a conservative Republican. There is nothing. You can’t equate statesmanship with being moderate. You can’t equate civility with being moderate. You can equate those things only with being good government, but nothing about me has changed,” Fox said. “I’m conservative and that’s all there is to it.”
Gianforte’s pitch to voters about why he’s the best choice in the primary boils down to his business background. He moved to Montana more than two decades ago and started a company called RightNow Technologies, which he later sold to Oracle for about $1.8 billion. In the process he created a lasting legacy of good-paying tech jobs in the Gallatin Valley.
“I’ve spent my life solving problems. I’ve created a lot of high-wage jobs here in the state. And I’m not running just to promote the high-tech industry. We need to do value-added ag, we need to responsibly develop our natural resources. We need to be in manufacturing, tourism, it’s kind of across the board. But our exports have been beef, grain and our kids. And my No. 1 priority would be to create high-wage jobs, such that all Montanans can prosper and Montanans that want to come back home can do it if they want,” Gianforte said.
Asked about Fox’s jabs at him, Gianforte brushed them aside and moved his answer toward why he thinks he is the best choice.
“Other candidates can run their races how they want to run them,” Gianforte said. “My proposition to Montana is pretty simple. I think we need a businessperson in the governor’s office, because we’ve had 16 years of single-party rule. We’re 43rd in the nation in wages and our kids our leaving. My vision is I want to help all Montanans prosper.”
To do that, Gianforte envisions “taking a page out of the national playbook” and bringing it back to Montana. By that, he means adopting as much as he can from Trump, who he has backed aggressively since being elected to the U.S. House first in a 2017 special election and again in 2018.
Some voters might appreciate Fox's approach of finding willing partners to push policies through, even if it includes reaching across the aisle. But some might see working with the opposition party as a negative, Banville said. Others could get behind Gianforte's votes taken in Congress showing an alignment with Trump, but his time spent in such a gridlocked environment may sour opinions compared to Fox's resume.
“Is this more about politics, the art of compromise and getting stuff done? Or is it philosophical warfare where one side will win and one side will lose?” Banville said.
There are also more familiar attacks Montanans can expect to see in this primary, though it's unclear how much traction they'll have. That includes the now-standard question of who was born in Montana and traces long family roots here (Fox and Olszewski) and who moved here decades ago (Gianforte).
It's also impossible to have a race with Gianforte involved and not talk about his incredible ability, as a wealthy businessman, to self-fund. That emphasizes the approach Fox is taking of knocking as many doors as possible against the potential of big advertising buys from the congressman.
While Banville said he thinks the race will most likely hinge on Fox and Gianforte's dynamics, Olszewski could play an interesting role.
“There’s definitely a possibility that the more conservative voters will split between the senator (Olszewski) and the congressman (Gianforte) and allow Fox to stitch together a coalition to win the primary,” Banville said
Olszewski is staking his gubernatorial bid on his background as a state legislator, saying a governor needs to make the executive branch and the legislative branch equal partners. He argues he's the candidate closest to the people and with the best understanding of statewide issues, having served one term in the state House and two in the Senate.
Olszewski is also no stranger to a crowded, and aggressive, primary, coming out on the losing end of the five-way 2018 U.S. Senate GOP race.
He’s already seen some of those aggressions, including rumor-spreading that his real desire is to be lieutenant governor.
“That was a rumor started to draw away support, especially monetary support,” Olszewski said. “It was to make people think “Why would I give you my monetary support just thinking you’re going to join with the other people?’”
A messy primary could challenge the Republican Party's assertions that it's come together after high-profile internal disputes spilled into the public eye in recent years. Most noticeably that includes a sharp divide over members of the so-called Solutions Caucus working with Democrats this spring to pass legislation, such as continuing Medicaid expansion.
Providing a visual example of the divide, members of the a group called the 38 Special, who opposed that bipartisan bill, posed for a group photo in the final days of the legislative session, saying their faces represented true Republicans, not the now-commonly used term RINOS, for Republicans in Name Only.
Newly elected Republican Party chair Don Kaltschmidt said in August he understands there might be some dust-ups in advance of the primary, but believes the party will emerge united.
“I’m a pragmatist and I realize the way that politics is done today there’s a certain amount of that. Obviously from the state party, we’d like to see that as a minimum," Kaltschmidt said.
"The beautiful thing about it is we are all, from moderate to very far-right conservative, all together on our governor race. At the end of the day, we have great candidates and whoever comes out of that primary, I believe the other two major candidates that are running will back the winner of the primary and we’ll all come together under that banner."
How the candidates who come out on the bottom go forward after the primary will set much of the tone, Banville said.
“Does the person who loses endorse the candidate and embrace the candidate and say, ‘We will now come together’? Or is left more jagged and 'this bitter primary is over, but it’s not like we’re buddies now'? If it’s left pretty jagged, you’ll see some lasting effects, and least for a while,” Banville said.