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Montana Candidates For Governor Adjust Campaigns For Pandemic

Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Montana Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte addresses a crowd of supporters and media outside the Missoula GOP Field Office on July 15, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has torn up the traditional campaign playbook for candidates seeking to be Montana’s next Governor. But with nearly three months until election day, campaigns are well underway.

Events have looked a bit different since the pandemic began, with digital appearances largely replacing photo ops at community centers and breweries.

“I hope you’ve all grabbed a cold one if that’s what you want. That’s what we’d usually be doing for a get out the vote rally," current Gov. Steve Bullock said during a Facebook Live campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney before the June primary.

These virtual campaign stops are not without some hiccups, as Bullock and Cooney experienced while waiting for one of Montana’s senators to join the call.

“He’s muted," Cooney said.

“I have never found anybody who could mute Jon Tester,” Bullock said.

“I gotta unmute myself. That’s not usually a problem you usually have at rallies," Tester said.

Since the primary, Lt. Gov. Cooney and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, have adopted different campaign strategies that align with each candidate’s approach to pandemic mitigation. Both campaigns have followed statewide guidelines for group sizes, but recent Cooney events haven’t included an in-person audience, outside of reporters. Meanwhile a recent Gianforte campaign tour attracted small crowds.

University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste says the coronavirus provides more questions than answers.

“The campaigns, I’m sure, are tearing out their hair trying to figure out ‘What can we do that is like shaking hands, talking to voters?’ So it’s a huge elephant in the room,” Muste said.

Libertarian Lyman Bishop and Green Party candidate Robert Barb will also be on the gubernatorial ballot come November.

Both major party candidates have framed the race within the pandemic. Gianforte has said his tech entrepreneur background would help expedite the state’s economic recovery, while Cooney has said his long record in elected office provides the necessary experience to guide Montana through unprecedented challenges posed by the virus.

Both candidates have self quarantined this campaign season after potential COVID-19 exposure. Cooney’s quarantine came after potential exposure to the virus during a meeting with state education officials, in March. Gianforte quarantined in early July after his wife was exposed to someone at one of Trump’s reelection fundraisers who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Muste says coronavirus motivated restrictions on public events could be a bigger challenge for Cooney, who hasn’t run for statewide office on his own ticket in two decades. In contrast, the 2020 governor’s race is Gianforte’s fourth bid on a statewide ballot in the last five years. Muste says the lieutenant governor has to work harder to get his name out there.

“For Cooney not to be able to go out to the county fairs, and other kinds of events happening in summer and early fall in Montana, I think is really tough for his campaign,” Muste said.

Cooney is holding socially distant in person press conferences without supporters, including one at Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena last week to share his public lands plan.

“In the past, pre pandemic, we’d like to have a huge crowd out here. Sportsmen and sportswomen,” Cooney said.

Instead, it’s reporters and the local fauna.

Cooney says it’s been an ongoing process figuring out how to replace the kind of personal connection he makes talking to someone in their backyard. For now, Cooney’s campaign is relying on digital appearances and journalist gaggles. He says he doesn’t envision holding in person events with supporters until virus case totals decline, especially given the message he’s been sharing under Bullock’s state reopening plan.

“It would be somewhat hypocritical of me to encourage Montanans to avoid being around other people, if I'm inviting people to get together and take a risk. At this point, the health of Montanans is too important for us to play that kind of game,” Cooney said.

Meanwhile, Gianforte recently unveiled his state recovery plan to limited numbers of supporters at 12 stops across Montana. The tour was a far cry from the last election cycle in 2018, when President Donald Trump urged thousands at a Missoula airplane hangar to support Gianforte’s House reelection bid and other Republicans on the ballot.

“Get your co-workers and get out and vote for Greg Gianforte,” Trump said.

This time around, Gianforte took the podium in front of about 20 supporters outside the Missoula GOP field office.

“And I want you to welcome the next governor of our great state of Montana," Kristen Juras said.

Gianforte says his campaign events are limited to 50 supporters, in accordance with state reopening guidelines. Though most attendees weren’t wearing them, masks and hand sanitizer were available at the Missoula event.

“These are reasonable precautions. But it’s not going to keep us from getting out and meeting with folks,” Gianforte said.

Darl Enger stood in the crowd with a blue surgical mask in his shirt pocket and a Make America Great Again cap on his head. He says the coronavirus has been blown out of proportion, and it’s time to refocus on the economy.

“I’m only 80 years old but I don’t feel terribly endangered. We have a million people in this state, plus a few. How many people have died,” Enger said.

When he’s not in Congress, Gianforte says he plans to continue holding small rallies with supporters.

“This is an incredibly important election for Montana. We’ve had 16 years of Democrat governors. And the number one issue that I hear from Montanans is they don’t think Montana is living up to its full potential,” Gianforte said.

With candidates cutting large scale events during the pandemic, UM political scientist Christopher Muste expects more advertisement spending, and not just on the TV and radio. Muste says candidates are increasingly using digital platforms like Facebook to target individual voters’ interests and lifestyles after seeing the strategy succeed with Trump’s election in 2016.

“So this will be a campaign where microtargeting will be emphasized to a degree we’ve never seen before in the state of Montana,” Muste said.

At the end of the last fundraising period in mid June, Gianforte had more than three times as much campaign funding in the bank compared to his opponent.

Apart from influencing how candidates target voters, Muste says the coronavirus will likely be a pervasive campaign issue, like health care or public lands. But he says our incomplete understanding of the virus makes it difficult for candidates to strike the right balance between supporting public health or the economy.

“This is not only a fine line, it’s a line that doesn’t exist,” Muste said.

Muste doesn’t expect the coronavirus to be a winning issue for either candidate.