BILLINGS – It’s not an election year in Montana, but it didn’t take long for politics to take center stage in Helena.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can’t run again after finishing his second term next year, which leaves the race for governor wide open.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton surprised everyone when he announced on Jan. 2 his intentions to run.
Stapleton’s announcement, posted on his official state website, made him the first candidate to jump into what promises to be a crowded primary for the state’s top political job.
It also landed him in trouble with the Commissioner of Political Practices, who fined Stapleton $4,000 for violating state ethics laws.
“Corey fumbled a little out of the gates,” said Jake Eaton, a Republican consultant based in Billings. “From what I hear, he’s off to a strong start with fundraising.”
In the past, candidates waited for the Legislature to conclude before vaulting into the throes of the campaign season, but that’s definitely not the case this year.
Montana State University political science professor Dr. David Parker says Stapleton could pose a challenge to other candidates hoping to jump into the race.
“Corey has a strong base not only in Yellowstone County but also in Cascade County where he grew up,” Parker said.
Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, long considered a likely governor candidate, followed Stapleton’s lead in mid-January.
“Tim Fox has strong statewide name ID, but he’s got some problems with the Republican base,” said Parker. “Some people in the Republican Party think he’s a little too moderate.”
Just this month, Kalispell state Sen. Al Olszewski, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination last year, also said to count him in the governor’s race as well.
That makes three announced candidates. And then there’s Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte.
Fresh off his victory over Democrat Kathleen Williams last November, he too, is said to be eyeing the governor’s chair in 2020.
“On the Republican side, everything is going to depend on what Congressman Gianforte decides to do,” said Eaton. “He’s extremely popular with Republicans.”
Gianforte isn’t saying what his future plans entail, but both Parker and Eaton believe he will run for governor.
“He’s already wanted to be governor, and I think this is his best shot,” said Parker. Gianforte lost his bid to unseat Bullock in 2016.
Democrat strategist Aaron Murphy, who just completed a two-year stint as Sen. Jon Tester’s Chief of Staff, told MTN News he believes Gianforte would be the favorite in a crowded race, but said the congressman has issues as well.
His failed bid for governor in 2016 is still fresh in the minds of voters, and there’s that ugly assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of his special congressional election in May 2017. Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, was sentenced to community service and paid a $385 fine.
“It didn’t appear to hurt him, nor has he been willing to talk about it, or answer for it,” said Murphy. “But if he decides to run, he’ll face a formidable challenge.”
For the Democrats, however, succeeding Bullock won’t be easy.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is considering the race. His grandfather served as Montana’s ninth Governor from 1933 to 1935, and Cooney would love to build on that family legacy. But does he have the right stuff in 2020?
“Being a 60-year old white male who’s lived in Helena and worked for government his whole life is not really compelling,” said Eaton. “He’s the guy who has managed to be around politics for 40 years, yet nobody knows who he is.”
“Montanans know Lt. Gov. Cooney, he’s a known commodity, and he’s everywhere,” said Murphy. “We will see who emerges as a strong contender. Whoever has the most powerful message that resonates with people – that’s the most important thing that people want in a candidate. It could be anybody.“
And Murphy said there’s plenty of time for that person to emerge.
“It could be a local school board member, it could be a mayor, a city council person, a community activist or a businesswoman,” he said.
Montana’s 2020 primary election is still 20 months away. Stay tuned. The fun is about to begin.
— Jay Kohn reporting for MTN News