HELENA — In Montana’s 2020 race for governor, the two Democratic contenders and their party already are taking aim at who they assume will be the Republican nominee: U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.
And the Bozeman businessman’s campaign has been releasing internal polls that show him leading by big margins over his two primary opponents, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski.
So, as voting begins next week in Montana’s first all-mail statewide election – the June 2 primary – does Gianforte have the GOP nomination for governor in the bag?
Not surprisingly, his opponents in the primary say no.
The idea that Gianforte is a huge favorite “is the wording and the propaganda coming from the Greg Gianforte campaign,” Olszewski told MTN News.
And Fox, the two-term attorney general, says if Gianforte thinks he has the primary victory sewn up, then why is still pouring his personal money into the campaign?
“He obviously doesn’t think he has it in the bag, or he wouldn’t be spending $1 million of his own money,” Fox said. “I hope he actually feels that way, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t feel like he’s got it in the bag.”
Gianforte loaned his campaign $500,000 three weeks ago, increasing his personal stake in the campaign to $1.05 million. That money comes on top of more than $1.8 million he’s raised from donors, giving him four times the money that Fox has raised and 10 times that of Olszewski.
But it’s that financial advantage – and Gianforte’s broad name recognition and relative popularity among conservatives – the make him very tough to beat in the primary, said David Parker, chair of the political science department at Montana State University.
“The fundamental problem that the candidates have, if they’re not Greg Gianforte and they’re not as well-known – the only fix is with money,” Parker said.
He said Fox and Olszewski must show that they’re a viable alternative, and that starts with people knowing who you are.
“The big question is, has Fox or Olszewski been able to get enough positive name recognition so that voters will say, `I like that person,’ or will vote for them,” Parker said. “I’m not sure the answer is yes.”
When asked why he felt he needed to add $1 million of his own money to his already substantial campaign fund, Gianforte told MTN News that it shows he’s “all in” on his commitment to improving the state’s future.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed, growing a business here in Montana,” he said. “We’ve lived the American dream. And I’m a point in my career where I feel a highly motivated to give back to provide opportunity to others. I don’t know how to say it, other than we’re all in for the future of Montana.”
The Gianforte campaign also said that it’s spending money not only on the primary race, but also to better position Gianforte for the fall showdown the Democratic nominee.
That contest features Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Missoula consultant Whitney Williams.
Gianforte and his wife, Susan, co-founded a software-development company in Bozeman in the mid-1990s, RightNow Technologies. The company, which pioneered customer-service software for business websites, was sold to Oracle Corp. in 2012 for $1.8 billion.
Gianforte has made his business background a central part of his campaign, arguing that “business experience in the governor’s office” will lead to creation of more good-paying jobs in Montana.
While Fox and Olszewski are not as well-known as Gianforte, who ran for governor in 2016 and then won Montana’s congressional seat in 2017 and 2018, they say he has an Achilles’ heel: He’s not that popular with the general public, and is the Republican candidate Democrats want to run against in the general election, because of that supposed unlikability.
“Polling says that 65 percent of Montanans don’t care for him,” Fox said. “And, certainly, we also know that the polling shows that I’m the Republican that can win in the general election.”
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon who came in fourth in a four-man GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2018, says he doesn’t believe the Republican primary race is over, because polls he’s seen show that one-third of Republican voters are undecided.
“That means they’re not happy with Congressman Gianforte and they’re not happy with Attorney General Fox,” he said. “And it’s my job to let them know that I’m out there and I’m worthy of their vote. …
”Granted, if my two opponents were extremely likable and popular in addition to having that additional name recognition, I would have no chance. But it turns out my opponents are not very likable and people are looking for something else. I am that something else.”
Gianforte’s campaign, however, exudes confidence, and has mostly ignored his primary rivals, instead honing its message for the general election.
“The goal is to create more good-paying jobs, so that Montanans may prosper,” Gianforte said last week.