Election will prove if Montana’s independent spirit is still alive

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As a longtime Helena resident, a previous legislator, and victim of dark money, I remain privy to insider Montana politics. The 2020 governor’s race has much in common with past “buy and bully” politics, where cattle barons and copper kings controlled Montana.

Hailing from New Jersey, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a hard-nosed billionaire, is known for his “scorched earth” approach — previously associated with funding attack mailers against Republican legislators and infamous for body slamming a reporter. Aggressive tactics, an unlimited checkbook, and a promise to stay in D.C., put Greg in Montana’s Congressional seat. Now Greg is breaking this promise to aggressively pursue Montana governor.

Initially Greg’s supporters sought to eliminate any competition. After earning nearly 100,000 more votes than Greg in the 2016 election, Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, the likable and effective CEO of the Department of Justice, was considered the “R” front-runner for governor. Tim became the target of mysterious attacks. Unidentified fliers disparaging Department of Justice employees appeared on doorsteps. Previous Fox supporters were lobbied to not donate to Tim. Inside stories relate how campaign staffers were told that “Working on the Fox for Governor campaign” would end their careers. And Tim himself was told that “Greg would spend whatever it takes” to win.

When another candidate, Al Olszewski (Dr. O), announced for governor, Gianforte supporters spread rumors that he would drop out to be Greg’s lieutenant governor. This made it difficult for Dr. O to raise money. Dr. O responded publicly that he was not Greg’s lieutenant governor, but damage was done. And now, in a similar move, Gianforte’s supporters are spreading the rumor that Fox is not really running for governor, but is raising money for a Supreme Court race. Misdirection, intimidation, and a few “lies” designed to confuse supporters and dry up donors.

Now a “poll,” characterized by Dr. O as the “best poll money can buy,” has been distributed. This “poll” shows Gianforte with an unbelievable primary lead. It also shows that Gianforte (R) leads Cooney (D) 43% to 34%. The message: 1) Greg owns the race, get out, 2) A donation to a candidate other than Greg is foolish.

The bottom line: after spending more than $10 million on elections and becoming infamous from the reporter attack, Gianforte has built 99% Montana name identification. Given Greg’s 99% name ID, polling a mere 43% against an unknown D reveals that much of Greg’s name ID is unfavorable. In simple terms, everybody knows Greg, but less than 55% like him. Buying up 7% in Independent voting in Montana is almost impossible, so Greg’s supporters must marginalize his opponents. The poll itself is suspect because the math is wrong. Poll numbers that should sum to 100% sum to 108%. Dr. O’s “best poll money could buy” seems on target.

Montana has a history of cattle barons and copper kings purchasing influence and intimidating competitors. Montana voters rejected this behavior in the past. The 2020 election will reveal if Montana’s Independent spirit is still alive.

John M. Ward served two terms in the Montana Legislature as a Republican representing Helena’s House District 84. He lives in Helena.

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