Gianforte draws barbs at GOP gubernatorial debate

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U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., at the Expo Building at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

BILLINGS — Rep. Greg Gianforte took some shots from his fellow Republican candidates for governor during the primary election’s first debate featuring all three candidates on Thursday.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox suggested Gianforte would best serve the party by not abandoning his House seat, and noted he received some 96,000 more votes during the 2016 election than Gianforte, a former technology executive who lost a bid for governor that year.

State Sen. Al Olszewski made a thinly-veiled reference to Gianforte’s assault on a reporter the day before he was elected in a 2017 special election. Olszewski said he wasn’t going to be “body-slammed out of this race” as he sought to dismiss rumors that he might drop out.

Gianforte, taking advantage of his huge cash advantage over his opponents, ignored the barbs and stressed his business experience and close ties to President Donald Trump.

“Who do you trust to bring business experience to the governor’s office?” Gianforte asked. “Who do you trust to leverage his relationship with Donald Trump to make sure we have better outcomes for Montana?”

The three candidates largely agreed on many of the central issues emerging in the campaign, including reining in state spending, lifting barriers to energy development and reducing tax burdens.

They sought instead to draw distinctions based on their electability and track record: Fox pointed to his years of public service, Gianforte touted his corporate credentials and Olszewski offered up a blend of legislative know-how and the experience he’s gained as a surgeon in private practice.

Democrats have occupied the governor’s mansion in Helena since 2005, a sore point for Republicans who hold almost every other statewide seat.

“It’s not about who we are or what we’re going to promise. It’s about why we want to be governor,” said Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and Air Force veteran from Kalispell. “As a doctor, I’m frustrated by being burdened by regulations that force me to focus more on the regulations than you.”

Fox, who grew up in Hardin and is finishing up his second term as attorney general, cast himself as the candidate with the most statewide appeal.

He pointed to a range of issues he’s been active on while in office — including litigation challenging Washington state’s resistance to new ports that would ship Montana coal, curbing Medicaid fraud and pursuing sex traffickers.

“We must pick the right candidate to get through the primary to actually win the governor’s election,” Fox said. “We need ... not just a conservative Republican as I’ve proven myself, but somebody who has a proven record of uniting people.”

Gianforte said his years building a Bozeman-based technology company taught him the importance of allowing private industry to drive innovation and easing government regulations that can squelch private enterprise.

He promised to cut state spending and give Montanans a tax break if elected — a proposal that Fox appeared to reference when he warned against “pandering” by candidates who promise across the board cuts.

Thursday’s event drew several hundred people and was sponsored by the Yellowstone County Republicans. Fox and Olszewski met for a debate in November that Gianforte did not attend.

Term limits prevent Gov. Steve Bullock from seeking re-election. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, businesswoman Whitney Williams and House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner are seeking the Democratic nomination.

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