HELENA — In Montana’s 2020 race for governor, voters won’t have much trouble finding stark contrasts, between Republican congressman and former businessman Greg Gianforte and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.
Gianforte, 59, one of the wealthiest men in Montana, will pitch himself as the “business guy” who will scrutinize government and make it more business-friendly.
“I’m running solely to create more good-paying jobs for Montanans,” he told MTN News. “As I talk to small business – we need a top-to-bottom regulatory review, because there is too much friction for small business.”
Cooney – a veteran of many elected offices – says he’s the steady hand who knows how to run the government and maintain vital services like public education, while guiding Montana to a bounce-back after a pandemic.
“People in Montana have trusted me to be in public office,” says the 65-year-old Cooney. “They’ve elected me a number of times to serve and I’ve stepped up each and every time. And I think that’s prepared me very well to take this state in a very positive direction.”
The two men won contested primaries June 2 and are prepping for a hard-fought and likely close campaign – much like the 2016 race, which pitted Gianforte against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Cooney, his running mate.
A Libertarian and Green Party candidate also are on the ballot, but Gianforte and Cooney are the main attraction, as Democrats try to extend a 16-year hold on the governor’s office and Republicans try to win it and effectively control the wheels of government in Helena.
Republicans already control both houses of the Legislature, and that’s not expected to change this fall.
Gianforte’s campaign began attacking Cooney right out of the primary, with a TV ad labeling him a “career politician” and “government bureaucrat” who has “never had a real job.”
Cooney hasn’t fired back with ads of his own, but told MTN News that Montanans won’t take the bait.
“What Mr. Gianforte is saying is that anybody who’s served in public office or anybody who holds a public-service job doesn’t hold a real job,” he said. “Well, I think that’s just hogwash. Montanans are going to look at that and basically say, `That’s just not true.’”
Cooney also says he knows that Gianforte will outspend him in the race, but that he’s not worried.
“I can’t write myself a million-dollar check or a $2 million check or a $5 million check,” he says. “We’ll be going out and having conversations with Montanans and listening to what they have to say. … I think that’s what Montanans want. They’re not willing to put this next election up on the auction block and sell it to the highest bidder.”
Gianforte has put $1.5 million of his own money into the campaign. When asked how much additional money he’d contribute, he declined to say – but sources tell MTN News he’s told people he’s prepared to spend much more.
Gianforte has said he’s “all in” for the race and the future of Montana, showing his commitment to the state and its economic prospects.
Gianforte, who built a Bozeman software-development firm into an international company that employed 500 people there and helped fuel the city’s ongoing boom, says he wants to peel back unnecessary regulations, freeze government spending and look for ways to cut state income and property taxes.
Yet he also says the state needs to tackle an epidemic of drug abuse and addiction, which has led to more crime, domestic abuse and child neglect, and is harming Montana’s workforce.
“And I think we need to focus more on rehabilitation instead of incarceration,” he says. “We have treatment courts in many of our counties and yet some of them don’t have them. And they work so much better than a jail cell for non-violent drug addicts.”
And while he wants to slow down state spending, Gianforte says he’s not out to undercut vital programs, like school funding or Medicaid expansion.
On public-school funding, he says Montana needs to pay higher teacher salaries and find ways to put more money into the classroom. And on Medicaid expansion – which covers more than 80,000 low-income adults -- he wants to maintain it, but take a closer look at applicants’ eligibility.
“We’re going to have to prioritize maintaining essential services, while also finding inefficiencies and waste, so we can balance the budget without raising taxes on Montanans,” he says.
So far, Cooney appears ready to run a campaign similar to the one he and Bullock ran in 2016 – labeling Gianforte a “New Jersey millionaire” and telling voters that Gianforte just wants to slash government, undermine public education and health care and threaten access to public lands.
Gianforte moved to Montana in the mid-1990s from New Jersey, before starting his software firm, RightNow Technologies, in Bozeman. The company developed customer-service software for companies starting Internet sales.
Cooney says he’ll roll out a plan to reduce prescription-drug costs, by allowing drugs imported from Canada, but mostly he says he’ll be a steady hand. One who can continue the record of a well-run state government that has kept things in the black, kept education affordable and accessible to all, and extended health care to thousands who didn’t have it before.
“To say that we’re going to freeze spending or we’re going to cut the budget or we’re going to lay off state employees – and I’ve heard Mr. Gianforte say all of those things – I think that is knee jerk,” he says. “It’s not necessary. That will be the fastest way to drive things down in Montana.”