Montana now has three Republicans campaigning for governor, with one candidate dropping out of the race to run for the U.S. House. Party leaders met in Helena this weekend. Veteran journalists Chuck Johnson and Ed Kemmick offer their analysis with Montana Free Press Editor John Adams.
John Adams: What stood out to you? What were some of the highlights of the weekend?
Chuck Johnson: Greg Gianforte kind of gave his first major talk since he's announced he's running for governor. Tim Fox, who had been in the race for some time, gave his speech, and then Al Olszewski gave his talk.
One of the news items this weekend was Corey Stapleton, who had been an announced candidate for governor since January, announced he's running instead for the house seat being vacated by Gianforte.
Adams: Ed, you came over from Billings. What was sort of the underlying theme of the two-day convention from your perspective?
Ed Kemmick: Two things are really kind of energizing the party, and that is, you know, one is the governor's race. They so desperately want to take the governor's position back. You know, it'll have been 16 years by the time the next governor is sworn in, and I think we heard the term "16 years" about 25 times this weekend. That was just constantly on everybody's lips, you know, a forefront of everyone's minds.
And then, maybe not surprisingly, Donald Trump was a huge unifier. Everybody went out of their way, no matter what they were running for, to, you know, pay homage to Donald Trump. They even took a selfie video led by Rep. Gianforte wishing him happy birthday because his birthday was on Friday.
Adams: It's been no secret for a really long time that there's been a pretty significant divide within the Republican Party, and they have not won a gubernatorial race since the year 2000. One of the reasons, in my view, that they've struggled to win some of those state, those high-profile statewide races, is because of the division within the party.
We've got two Democrats who've announced, Rep. Casey Schreiner from Great Falls and Reilly Neill, a former legislator from Livingston, has filed paperwork but hasn't made a formal announcement. But the Republicans definitely see an opportunity here. Did you get a sense at this convention that they are coming together, that there is some coalescing of party unity?
Johnson: Well, the public rhetoric was all, “We've got to unite. We've got to have a united party going into 2020.” That was said repeatedly by the candidates for the top officers in the party chair and the like.
Adams: What was the turnout like?
Johnson: Probably 250 people maybe.
Adams: And Ed, what are you hearing from the rank-and-file?
Kemmick: Well one interesting thing I heard talking to Rep. Llew Jones about, you know, what the prospects were for the governor's race because there are so many candidates, and he thinks it's going to be really difficult, no matter who is nominated, just because Montanans have always proven to be in favor of split government.
They don't want to put all the power in one party's hands, since the house and senate would be next to impossible to knock off in 2020, and I think that's true. But then other people were talking about - including former GOP Chair Jeff Essmann - you know, the continuing trend toward Republicans becoming the default party. Meaning that if all things were equal, if there's unknown names, people will now default to the Republicans as opposed to default to the Democrats, which was the case in Montana for many decades.
Adams: Chuck, there seems to be two factions. Certainly we saw that in the legislature, and you're seeing that at this electoral level as well right now, with these statewide races. On the one hand, that sort of more moderate business-focused wing of the Republican Party that's represented in the legislature by people like Ed Buttrey, Llew Jones, Nancy Balance, etc.
They pretty clearly favor the Attorney General Tim Fox, maybe a little bit more so than Greg Gianforte, who tends to be more on the religious, conservative end of the spectrum. I think Fox is also very much a, you know, he's pro-life, he supports the (southern border) wall, you know, things like that.
So he's got his own conservative credentials, but from a style standpoint, I feel like the more moderate faction is favoring Fox, and the more conservative faction is favoring Gianforte, and we're seeing that a little bit further down the ticket in that race for attorney general as well, where it seems like Austin Knudsen is aligning himself with the pro-Gianforte faction of the party, whereas Jon Bennion, who is the deputy attorney general to Attorney General Tim Fox, is more representative of that business-minded, you know “solutions caucus” Republican-type crowd.
Johnson: What I think we've seen Tim Fox doing somewhat, at least from my observation, is kind of making occasional moves to the right. He sent a letter to the CEO of Chick-fil-A restaurants asking them to come to Montana, and they've been in the news the last couple of years for their opposition to rights for gay employees, so maybe it was on Twitter or somewhere on social media, he blasted Bernie Sanders for a speech he gave. So I think he throws an occasional punch over at the right, but I think for the most part he's not in that camp, the far right anyway.
Adams: And one of the distinctions that is clear to me is that you're seeing is this notion of ambition.
You got Corey Stapleton who's run - he's the current secretary of state - he's run for a lot of offices over the years, it seems like anytime there's an open office. He's run for governor, he's run for the House, he's run for the Senate. He originally announced he was going to run for governor, and now he's switched over to the House, and I think you're going to see some criticism lobbed at him, that he's just running for something. That it's more about that he wants to, that he has ambition, more than wanting to do the job that he just got elected to.
That similar criticism was leveled by the Fox campaign on Greg Gianforte, who had just run for governor three years ago and lost, and is now, hasn't even completed a full term in the house yet, is now running for governor again.
Johnson: The other thing to remember is Republicans had one of their best election years, in many decades I think, in 2016. They won state auditor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and attorney general.
Adams: And just a few years ago, Democrats had all five of those Land Board seats for quite some time.
Johnson: So now if we look ahead to 2020: Fox is termed, so he won't be there, so there’s an open race for attorney general. Auditor Rosendale is not term limited, he could run again if he wanted to, but apparently he's looking at the House. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton could run again. He's got another term there if he wanted to run. He's leaving, and Superintendent Elsie Arntzen is seeking re-election.
So three of those four offices will have new people holding them, you know either Democrats or Republicans, so there's a potential that they could lose control of those seats. You know, they had control of the Land Board, which makes important decisions concerning natural resource issues and state lands, so things could change dramatically depending on how the elections turn out.
Adams: I want to go back and talk about Bullock a little bit because the Republicans, I think they're having some fun with Bullock running for president and his campaign not really getting much attention and he didn't make the debates, in an attempt to damage his brand a little bit with the anticipation that he's going to switch over and run for that Senate race.
Bullock insists that he has no intention of running for the Senate. The Republicans are not acting as though they believe him. Right now, there isn't a Democrat other than Wilmot Collins, who is relatively unknown outside of Helena, who's announced for that race. Certainly Bullock would be a serious contender if he decides to switch to the Senate race.
Kimmick: The one person I talked to who thought Bullock would definitely be running for the Senate against Steve Daines was Rep. Derek Skees, who just kind of laughingly made that statement as if it was common knowledge. That no, Bullock’s going to have his bubble burst in Iowa, and then he'll be coming back home to run against Daines.
Adams: There have also been rumors out there for a while now that Sen. Al Olszewski might join Greg Gianforte’s ticket as a lieutenant governor candidate. That's something that's been out there for a while. Did you hear anything on that? Did you get a chance to ask Al about whether or not there's any truth to those rumors that he might join Gianforte?
Kemmick: I did, and the first thing out of his mouth was that he's been working too hard to, I think his quote was, to now angle for the chance to be somebody else's arm candy. But then I said, “Well, did you talk to Gianforte about it?”
He said, “Well, he did say that I was on his list, and I told him that I would keep all my options open, but that, for right now, I intend to win this race.”
But he definitely was asked to at least consider the possibility, and he didn't say absolutely no.
Adams: He didn't rule it out.
Kemmick: No, no.
Listen to John Adams’ entire conversation with Chuck Johnson and Ed Kemmick on the Montana Lowdown podcast starting Tuesday, June 18.