HELENA — On an unseasonably warm November day almost a year ago on the third story of the Capitol building, Republican leaders in the state made their intentions clear.
They would lay a path, paved with party unity, that over the next two years would lead to a Republican winning the governor's race in 2020. For what will be 16 years by Election Day, Democrats have held the office.
But Gov. Steve Bullock is termed out and running a long-shot campaign for president, so the seat is wide open. Republicans recognize the opportunity as their best chance in four election cycles to take back something they have long felt should be theirs.
Far more often than not, Republicans had been the party in control of the Legislature, their dominance solidified over the last seven years. In 2016 they’d swept all but one of the statewide elected offices, save the white whale of the governor's race.
Now all they needed was a candidate.
One name was already assumed, Republican Attorney General Tim Fox. After eight years as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, many believed — rightly — Fox would next set his sights on a big corner office in the east wing of the Capitol. He announced his candidacy in January, and some felt the seat was his for the taking, had been for years.
Except for the swirling buzz that another heavy hitter in the party might join — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, fresh off a reelection victory to his seat and equipped with more experience, name recognition and electoral success than the first time he ran for governor in 2016 against Bullock.
Gianforte confirmed the rumors in June, announcing at the statewide Republican officers' convention. His decision prompted another declared candidate to vacate the race, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who instead is now running for the seat Gianforte is vacating.
State Sen. Albert Olszewski, who stood in front of melting snow on the Capitol steps in April to declare his governor candidacy, stayed in the race after Gianforte's announcement. Battle-worn after an intense GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2018, Olszewski is no stranger to competing against his fellow party members and has no intention of stepping aside to let the Fox vs. Gianforte showdown take top billing.
Given the mood and increasingly divisive nature of the national political landscape, it could set things up for a more intense primary fight than Montana has seen before, political analysis and University of Montana professor Lee Banville said last week.
“You have what could turn out to be a knock-down, drag-out fight for … it’s cliche, but for the soul of the party,” Banville said. “I think that’s where we’re heading with the Republican Party right now. These are very different candidates and they’re representing different ways of governing, and I think it will be a hard-fought primary.”
Fox tested the waters first with a few digs at Gianforte during the June officers' convention, criticizing Republicans who could seek re-election to the seat they hold now but instead are looking for different jobs. That, of course, includes Gianforte.
In a recent interview in Butte, Fox repeated those concerns, saying as he travels the state, he hears frustration about the game of musical chairs voters feel Republicans are playing. If there was any lack of clarity on whether his comments extended to Gianforte, Fox added that the congressman’s choice to run for governor, in his view, costs Montana seniority in D.C.
"It is not only a net loser for the party, it is a net loser for Montana. If we truly believe in what we espouse about good conservative government, then it’s our obligation when we seek and obtain these offices to hold them as long as we can,” Fox said.
On a trip through the state in early August — an aggressive travel schedule that included visits to towns at the far west and east corners of Montana, and more than a few places in between — Gianforte sat down after meeting with a large group of nonprofit leaders in Helena to explain that hearing from Montanans is why he’s now a gubernatorial candidate.
“I am honored to serve the state of Montana. I reached out to hundreds and hundreds of people over a six-month period and asked them, 'What should I do?' And the overwhelming feedback I got was, 'With your business experience and with your executive administration experience, we need you in Helena.’ And I took that that input,’” Gianforte said.