HELENA — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte launched his campaign for Montana governor on Friday, immediately shaking up the contest for the Republican nomination by prompting an attack from one prominent opponent and speculation that others may now change their election plans.
It's the 58-year-old technology entrepreneur's second try for the governor's office after losing to incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock in 2016.
Bullock, who is running for president, is barred from running again because of term limits, and Gianforte sees the 2020 race as a good chance to flip a seat held by Democrats since 2005.
"For 16 years, Republican policies and conservative solutions have been met with a veto pen," Gianforte said at the annual convention of the Montana Republican Party. "I think everyone in this room would agree that it's time for a change. It's time to set a new course with a new leader."
He isn't the only Republican to sense that opportunity. He's the sixth GOP candidate for the office, with the others including popular two-term Attorney General Tim Fox, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and state Sen. Al Olszewski, who lost his bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate last year.
State Rep. Casey Schreiner and former state legislator Reilly Neill are the only candidates so far on the Democratic side. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is also considering running.
Montana has turned increasingly Republican in recent years, though voters in the state pride themselves on their independence. Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester are the only two Democrats to win a statewide election after 2012.
Gianforte is perhaps best known for assaulting a reporter on the eve of a 2017 special election for the seat he now holds. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, apologized to the reporter and made a donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists, though he never explained why he initially told police and the public that the reporter had instigated the encounter.
Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson said the open seat provides another opportunity for Republicans.
"Generally speaking, the state has a fairly strong red lean," Johnson said. "Because of that, anytime there's an opening for a statewide office, a Republican candidate has a pretty good shot of winning."
Gianforte, who is running in his fourth statewide campaign in five years, picked up where he left off in his 2018 re-election campaign - aligning himself with President Donald Trump and saying he'd bring the president's "pro-growth playbook" to Montana.
"I'll use the relationships I've built in Washington with President Trump and other leaders to push back on federal overreach," he said.
Fox swiftly went on the attack, criticizing the Bozeman entrepreneur for leaving Montana's one U.S. House seat vulnerable to a Democratic win and pointing out that Gianforte lost his last governor's race the same year that Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points.
"I've talked to literally hundreds of people since January, and I have not heard one person say it was a good idea for Greg Gianforte to abandon his congressional seat eight months after he campaigned," Fox told The Associated Press. "We deserve a governor who will actively serve the people of Montana, not just people seeking office for themselves."
Gianforte told the AP that it's unfortunate that Fox wants to start the race with a negative tone.
"I'm focused on creating better opportunities for all Montanans and bringing proven business experience to the governor's office, and I'll look forward to debating the issues rather than just slinging mud," he said.
The now-open U.S. House seat also is causing other candidates for governor to consider their options. Stapleton said he will make "a big announcement" about his 2020 election plans on Saturday morning. He declined to elaborate.
The conservative Club for Growth political-action committee, a group that supports potential Republican U.S. House candidate Matt Rosendale, sent out a statement blasting Stapleton and accusing him of considering jumping to the House race.
Drew Zinecker, a spokesman for Olszewski, said the state senator will remain in the governor's race.
Gianforte started a Bozeman software company called RightNow Technologies, which he sold to Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion. One of the company's executives was Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and the two are close friends.