This is the first of a three-part series on the candidates running for Montana’s U.S. House seat
HELENA – Montana’s only U.S. House member, Republican Greg Gianforte, is following the script of many Republicans up for re-election this year in Trump-friendly districts: A vote for me is a vote to continue the agenda of President Trump.
“Do we stay with President Trump’s agenda that’s gotten our economy going, creating more prosperity?” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “Or do we go back to the failed policies of the last administration that gave us anemic growth and poor results for a lot of Montana?”
The former software-company founder from Bozeman is leaning heavily on the economy and tax policy, touting historically low unemployment and strong growth numbers – and saying the 2017 GOP tax-cut bill is a big reason for both.
“This is a race of competing ideas,” he says. “I have always believed that we ought to work to help people keep the fruits of their labor. And we should have lower taxes. That’s how we help people prosper.”
Gianforte, 57, first won Montana’s sole congressional seat in a May 2017 special election — the day after he threw to the ground and punched reporter Ben Jacobs of the Guardian, at a campaign event in Bozeman. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
His victory last year came seven months after he lost a race for governor to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Gianforte grew up in the Philadelphia area and lived in New Jersey before moving to Bozeman in the mid-1990s. He and his wife, Susan, co-founded RightNow Technologies in 1994, a company that developed customer-service software for use via the Internet.
The company grew to employ more than 500 people in Montana and was sold to Oracle Corp. in 2012 for $1.8 billion. With a net worth in excess of $300 million, Gianforte is one of the wealthiest, and perhaps the wealthiest, member of Congress.
He’s being challenged this year by Democrat Kathleen Williams, a former state legislator from Bozeman, and Libertarian Elinor Swanson, an attorney from Billings.
The race hasn’t drawn much national attention, as Democrats are concentrating on dozens of other U.S. House races where they think they have a better chance of knocking off a Republican seat.
Gianforte rarely mentions his opponent by name and talks often about his support for the president.
“I am so proud that Donald Trump is our president,” he said late last week, to a group of GOP supporters in Helena.
In addition to talking about the economy, Gianforte also emphasizes what he calls “making our communities safer,” which he says includes beefing up military spending and “securing the border.”
“We need to end this illegal immigration,” he says. “It’s putting crime across the border. It’s also bringing Mexican meth into our Montana communities.”
Gianforte’s first two campaign TV ads of the season attack Williams on immigration and gun-rights, saying she’s soft on both.
When asked why he chose that initial approach, Gianforte first talked about the economy, and then mentioned that he has an A rating from the National Rifle Association and thinks that the country needs a “consistent rule of law and we need to secure the border.”
Yet while Gianforte talks often about his support for the president, he also is campaigning and working on Montana-centric issues like forest management, access to public lands and wilderness legislation.
Gianforte recently became chair of the Subcommittee on Interior, Energy and Environment for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – the most junior member of the House to chair a committee or subcommittee.
He says the panel already has held hearings on why the Forest Service has gated thousands of forest roads and constraints on federal grazing permits.
He also says he’s likely spent more time on forest management than any other issue, pushing a GOP bill designed to slow or block what he calls “frivolous lawsuits” by “environmental extremists” that are stalling logging projects on national forests. The bill failed to pass the U.S. Senate, but Gianforte said the House has been inserting portions of the measure into other legislation that must pass.
Gianforte sponsored a bill, which passed, to protect a portion of East Rosebud Creek, west of Red Lodge, and is sponsoring bills that would release some 700,000 acres of wilderness study areas in Montana, for management by the Forest Service and possible development.
But as he campaigns for his second term, Gianforte most often expounds on the themes that characterized his earlier campaigns – pro-business, lower taxes, less government.
“My wife and I raised our kids here, we started our business in our home, created over 550 high-wage jobs and then spent my career negotiating with business leaders all over the world,” he says. “That’s the experience I’m bringing to Capitol Hill and I think I’m showing results for the people of Montana.”