Less than a year ago, Donald Trump was persona non grata in Montana GOP politics. The party office had no contact information for Trump's campaign, and one statewide candidate wouldn’t even utter The Donald’s name.
Now, as the party prepares for a special U.S. House election to replace Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, candidates can’t associate enough with Trump and his political promise “to drain the swamp” on politics as usual in Washington, D.C.
“I talk often about my support,” said Ken Miller, one of a half-dozen people seeking the party’s nomination to face Democrats and Libertarians in a special U.S. House race in late spring. “My goal is to be someone with a proven backbone to stand up and support Trump’s agenda.”
Miller was on the leadership team of Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He was also among a block of Cruz supporters who dominated Montana’s delegation to the Republican National Convention. There were rumblings of a Cruz coup at the convention, but that didn't materialize. Miller said it wasn't in the cards.
When Trump stopped in Billings last May 26 for his only Montana campaign event, Miller didn’t attend. The former state chairman of the Montana Republican Party said he was in Colorado that day.
A Laurel Republican, Miller described the race for his party’s nomination as essentially a two-candidate race between himself and 2016 gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte. Like Miller, there’s little evidence Gianforte was on the Trump train last spring.
The high-tech entrepreneur-turned-candidate didn’t identify Trump or the Republican Party last May when acknowledging Trump’s campaign event in Billings, which Gianforte didn’t attend.
A Bozeman businessman, Gianforte applauded yet another visit by a 2016 presidential candidate to Montana.
"It's nice to see the Big Sky getting the big attention we deserve," Gianforte said in a welcoming press released headlined “Gianforte Welcomes Presidential Candidate to Montana.” The Republican candidate for governor said he had a meeting with the Montana Mining Association near Butte the day of the rally and couldn’t attend.
“I always said that I would support the eventual nominee," Gianforte told The Gazette. "When Trump became the nominee, I supported him. Now, he’s our president, and I support him."
Last week, Gianforte’s campaign pointed out that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock wasn’t embracing Democrat Hillary Clinton, either. Bullock, a superdelegate, skipped the Democratic National Convention. While he endorsed the Democratic Party’s nominee, it took The Gazette several emails last June to get Bullock’s campaign staff to acknowledge that the nominee was Hillary Clinton.
Since announcing his interest in the U.S. House, Gianforte has repeatedly aligned himself with Trump. He’s also characterized the special election as the Democratic Party’s first referendum on Trump’s agenda, a chance to wrestle a House seat away from Republicans. It’s been 21 years since Montana elected Missoula Democrat Pat Williams to the U.S. House. The state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the post since then. Most of the elections haven’t been close.
“Trump is our president and the leader of our party, I support him,” Gianforte said. “Of course, there will be things I don’t agree with the president on and there will be things I don’t agree with Republican leadership on. And, that’s because when those differences of opinion come along, I’ll be on Montana’s side. I’m going to be looking out for Montana first. My number-one priority will be to make sure that Montana’s voice is heard in Washington”
Gianforte received 46 percent of the vote in the 2016 governor’s race to Bullock’s 50 percent. Libertarian Ted Dunlap picked up the remainder. The Republican candidate received 43,125 fewer votes than Trump, who clobbered Hillary Clinton with a 101,531-vote advantage.
The Republican might have done better had he associated himself more with Trump, said Craig Wilson, Montana State University political science professor emeritus. Wilson said Gianforte will need to identify with Trump in the special election to attract the Republican voters Gianforte didn’t draw in 2016. Whoever the Republican Party chooses to be its candidate in the next week or so during a nominating convention will have to be affiliated with Trump. In fact, it will be impossible not to be affiliated with the new president, Wilson said.
There are now seven Republicans vying to be selected at nominating convention by members of county-level committees. With no time for a primary election before an early spring election, all political parties will select a candidate in-house.
A look at federal election data shows only one would-be Republican U.S. House candidate donating to Trump, state Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls. A moderate Republican, Buttrey is considered by many to have an outside shot at the nomination.
But Buttrey was an early Trump supporter. He donated $2,700 to Trump’s campaign. And along with Rep. Zinke, he was the first Republican office holder to endorse Trump publicly. When Trump rallied supporters in Billings, Buttrey attended as a VIP and got to visit with Trump the candidate.
“I was originally a supporter of Gov. (John) Kasich from Ohio. I supported him in the beginning due to the fact that his history showed an intellect and ability to search out solutions and not take ideological position when a solution could be obtained,” Buttrey told The Gazette. “I soon, however, saw a clear and concise message coming from the electorate, and that was that they were fed up with both parties, with the establishment, the practice of pointing fingers and laying blame, and most importantly the lack of positive action by politicians on behalf of the American people. This applied to voters from both parties, and they all were clearly looking for an alternate to the same-old politician. Mr. Trump certainly fit the bill.”
Trump's speaking style seemed rash at times, Buttrey said, but Americans were embracing Trump’s matter-of-fact style. The Great Falls Republican saw Americans wanting to take the country in a different direction and concluded that Trump would do so.
“I believe I fit the mold of what the electors stated loud and clear in the last election that they want for their representative. I am a Zinke/Trump-type candidate, one that is willing to listen to all sides, to hear all arguments, and consider all opinions,” Buttrey said. “I am conservative in my decision making, but also am humble enough to know that I am not always right on all issues and that the best leader is willing to know when they need help, need advice and need to consider alternate opinions before making a decision.”
The other candidates seeking the Republican nomination are Drew Turiano, of East Helena; Dean Rehbein, of Missoula; Rep. Carl Glimm, of Kila; and Ed Walker of Billings.
If the other candidates are now Trump supporters, Buttrey said he applauds their change of heart.