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2020 Primary Preview: Montana Governor's Race

The governor's mansion in Helena, Mont.
Montana Office of Tourism
The governor's mansion in Helena, Mont.

Heading into this election cycle, Republicans control both chambers of Montana’s Legislature. If they keep those majorities and win the governor's office, it'll be the first time since 2004 the GOP could control both those branches of the Montana state government. Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to keep their decade-and-a-half hold on the executive.

With incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock termed out, two Democrats, three Republicans, a Libertarian and a Green Party candidate are vying to become Montana’s next chief executive.

On the Democratic side, Current Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams both advocate for holding big pharmaceutical companies accountable and bolstering education with a public preschool option.

Cooney has tapped House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls as his running mate. Williams picked president of the National Barley Growers Association Buzz Mattelin of Culbertson.

Cooney says he’s worked hard to foster an inclusive, open state for all Montanans, including those who identify as LGBTQ. He says work remains to protect the dignity and rights of people within those communities.

Cooney has held elected office in Montana’s legislative and executive branches since the mid-’70s. He says his career as a public official would allow him to make an immediate impact in the governor’s office.

“That is what really prepares me to become governor, and continue to fight these fights and take on these challenges without missing a beat. You don’t have to train me. I’ve been there and know what to do, and can do it from Day 1," Cooney said.

Meanwhile, Williams says Montana is ready for someone with a different background. She founded a business, williamsworks, that helps large companies and nonprofits tackle complicated projects, like disaster relief. Williams says running the company has prepared her to rebuild a state economy struck by the novel coronavirus.

“I just believe Montana is at a crossroads," Williams said. "And I do think that Montana families sort of expect bold new leadership and someone with executive experience, and someone who's tough enough to take on these challenges that are new challenges facing our state, just like coronavirus.”

Though both candidates hold similar stances on several issues, Williams has criticized the Bullock administration, including Cooney, for allowing public schools to reopen this academic year. Cooney fired back during a debate, saying local districts should make the decision whether to stay remote.

Williams led primary fundraising among the two candidates during the most recent filing period, with $127,000 received.

For the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte has an immense cash advantage over his challengers: state Attorney General Tim Fox, and state Sen. Al Olszewski. Gianforte loaned his campaign $500,000 during the last filing period, and raised another $107,000.

Gianforte is running with University of Montana law professor Kristen Juras as his number two. Fox named former state Rep. Jon Knokey of Bozeman. Olszewski tapped state Sen. Ken Bogner of Miles City.

All three Republican candidates have advocated for reducing what they call government waste and lowering prescription drug costs. All of them also call for fewer regulations on businesses.

Gianforte has touted his business experience and connection with President Donald Trump on the campaign trail. He says the next governor's number one priority should be rebuilding the economy.

Gianforte says years of low wages have caused Montanans, including three of his four kids, to leave the state for better opportunities elsewhere.

Gianforte says the coronavirus pandemic has shown that work doesn’t necessarily need to happen in office buildings. He suggested revitalizing rural areas by inviting more Montanans home to work remotely for businesses based in other states.

“The sense I’m getting from folks around the state is they know better is possible, and we need business leadership experience in the governor’s office to get our economy going and to build upon that foundation to create better paying jobs so that Montanans can prosper and those that want to come back home can,” Gianforte said.

Fox says the coronavirus hasn’t just impacted the economy, but also shed light on longstanding inadequacies within behavioral health systems. He says the ability to offer telehealth and other remote services is “way behind the times.” Fox advocates for bolstering broadband services across rural Montana.

He says this primary proves self-funders with immense wealth can “pit Republicans against Republicans." Fox says Gianforte’s decision to leave his House seat after one-and-a-half terms risks leaving Republicans with a weak general election ticket.

Fox says working with officials on both sides of the aisle to solve problems in his role as a two-term attorney general makes him the most electable Republican to retake the governor’s office for the first time since 2005.

“There’s a tremendous amount of folks relying on leadership to get it right. My two opponents have really only engaged in pandering and rhetoric, and they don’t have any substance," Fox said.

Olszewski is casting himself as the primary’s hardline conservative. The medical doctor says the biggest issue facing Montana is living under state of emergency directives Bullock enacted in response to the coronavirus. Olszewski says Kalispell residents have been gathering for car shows and concerts anyway, which means the guidelines aren’t effective.

“But I think counties and municipalities need to have the flexibility to open. And businesses to back off and distance or reduce their services based on the presence of the infection within their communities," Olszewski said.

Olszewski also says he’s the only candidate who would replace and repeal Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, an approach he says he’d also take with the state’s water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Libertarian Lyman Bishop and Green Party candidate Robert Barb are also in the race to become Montana’s governor.