Republican Greg Gianforte officially kicked off his campaign for governor in Lockwood, just east of Billings this morning. It was the start of a two-day fly-around across the state.
For the last several months, the Bozeman-businessman has been traveling the state on an exploratory campaign. That came to an end when he officially launched his campaign during a stop at Montana Peterbilt.
"Montanans will have a very clear choice. Stay with the current administration and expect more of the same or change the way we do business in Montana."
Gianforte says he will bring strong, innovative leadership to Helena.
He touted his high-tech background as proof. Gianforte is a founder of RightNow Technologies based in Bozeman. In 2012, it was sold to Oracle for nearly $2 billion.
Gianforte says he’ll bring a new approach when it comes to creating jobs.
"First, I’ll focus on removing barriers to creating jobs. And I’ll do it in all sectors of our economy, starting with natural resources right through to high technology."
And he blasted incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock saying he’s not standing up to regulations coming from Washington, DC.
Bullock has yet to officially launch his re-election campaign.
State Representative Kelly McCarthy of Billings serves on the executive committee of the Montana Democratic Party. McCarthy says he’s glad Gianforte finally officially entered the race for governor.
"There’s a number of questions he refuses to answer, has refused to answer. For over a year now he’s been running a shadow campaign, and now you get to hold him accountable. Now that he’s running he shouldn’t get the free pass on not answering the questions."
McCarthy says this includes questions about his donations to the Montana Family Foundation and other organizations, and his comments against a non-discrimination ordinance.
Reporters at the kick-off campaign event followed Gianforte around after his remarks, but he refused to answer questions. He promptly left for his remaining campaign stops through Thursday to Sidney, Lewistown, Kalispell, Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, and wrapping up in Bozeman.
University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin says Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte will now have to discuss topics he’s to date been reluctant to address.
"He’s given a lot of money to socially conservative causes and that is what Democrats would like to focus on in this campaign. Up ‘till now, he hasn’t really addressed that, but now that he’s an official candidate he will need to," says Saldin.
A recent MSU-Billings poll shows incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock’s approval rating at 50 percent. Twenty percent of respondents disapproved of his performance.
"Those are really strong numbers,” Saldin says.
But Saldin adds that Bullock – who, again, hasn’t officially launched his re-election campaign - also has reason to worry.
"I think you have to be a little concerned always if you’re a Democrat in Montana because it is a conservative, Republican-leaning state. A state that Romney carried by, I think, 18-percentage points against Obama in the last presidential election."
Saldin also thinks rapidly evolving energy policy could present Bullock with a lot of potential headaches.
"Bullock is having to respond to some of the EPA demands on Montana and that’s difficult for him because it does split the Democratic base. Environmentalists tend to love the EPA rules, but union labor types don’t. That’s going to have to be an awkward issue for Bullock to have to navigate.”
Saldin thinks campaign contributions could be less of a pressing issue in this race than normal, because both candidates will likely be so flush with cash.
"Bullock as a sitting governor, I think is going to have no problem raising money. Gianforte has raised some money already – a fairly sizable amount of money, actually - but it’s really less of a concern for him because he can self-finance.”
Gianforte will have a Republican opponent in the primary race. Former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson announced his candidacy back in September. Johnson is currently chairman of the Montana Public Service Commision. Saldin says Johnson’s a credible candidate who certainly knows his way around Montana politics.
"But it’s very hard to see him being able mount a credible challenge for the Republican nomination if Gianforte doesn’t run into some serious issues along the way."
Montana’s primary will be held June 7.