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Montana’s two-term Attorney General Tim Fox announced his campaign for governor Thursday.

Fox, a Republican from Hardin, was first elected attorney general in 2012 and again in 2016. He is term-limited from running for the office again, and seeks to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2020.

“Democrats have occupied the Governor’s Office for the last 14 years and it’s time for that to change,” Fox said in a news release. “As I travel around Montana, people are encouraging me to run because they want a governor with a record of results. Montanans want a strong conservative who fights for our communities, reins in government, and protects our constitutional liberties. I believe I am the candidate who can lead our party to victory and our state to prosperity.”

He enters what is expected to be a crowded Republican primary, which also includes Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

Fox alluded to his current and potential rivals in a radio interview with Aaron Flint Thursday morning. While not mentioning Stapleton by name, he said that “we have some fine individuals who are incumbents in statewide offices, who should stay where they're at and keep those offices in Republican hands and not create opportunities for Democrats up and down the ballot by playing musical chairs with their candidacies.”

In addition to Stapleton, former Montana state Sen. Gary Perry of Manhattan and Peter Ziehli of Kalispell have also filed as Republicans for the governor’s race. Fox’s own campaign finance paperwork was not available on the Commissioner of Political Practices’ Campaign website as of Thursday afternoon.

At a Wednesday event on drug abuse in Missoula, Fox had stressed his willingness to work with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on criminal justice legislation. But he struck a more partisan tone in his conversation on Flint's conservative talk radio show. Asked about the opportunity the next governor had to move the state forward, Fox replied, “The opportunity is with working with a Republican-held Legislature. Republicans have held the Legislature for some time. Unfortunately, our current governor has thwarted some really conservative things that we've tried to do through the Legislature to move Montana forward.”

He blasted Bullock as an “absentee governor,” noting his recent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, and called him a “no-show” when it came to defending Montana's coal interests. Fox also touted his own opposition to Obama administration policies, and support for religious freedoms and gun rights.

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No Democratic candidates had filed as of Thursday, Jan. 24. But “we can't take this for granted that we're going to win,” Fox told Flint.

“We need the right candidate, and I'm that guy.”

Asked about Fox's announcement at the Capitol Thursday afternoon, Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, remarked that "I'm completely focused on just getting our job done in this building. There's going to be a lot of conversations about 2020. … But our approach is, we're here to do a job, we have a short time to do it, and we're going to focus on the Legislature."

Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, added that a constituent had asked him to carry a bill that would bar officeholders from seeking a different office before leaving their current post. "I don't think that's going to get very far, but I think that we should not have to be distracted by the politics of the 2020 cycle while we're trying to get the people's business done in 2019."

Michael Woodel with the Helena Independent Record contributed to this story.

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