Montana Republicans must be chomping at the bit. They have to see running room ahead as they vie to retake the governor’s mansion for the first time in 16 years.
That’s because there are three highly qualified Republicans running in the June primary, and the winner will be taking on one of two Democrats who have serious weak spots.
First of all, the Republicans. They are Congressman Greg Gianforte of Bozeman, Attorney General Tim Fox of Helena, and State Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell.
My personal favorite is Dr. Al, an orthopedic surgeon by training who is a reliable conservative who would get things done in Helena. Unfortunately, Olszewski has a bit of a name recognition problem compared to the other two despite having the most recognizable name by far! Dr. Al could probably have challenged either Fox or Gianforte in a two man race, but it will be a tall order to prevail against both.
Gianforte has a couple of red marks against his name during the primary.
For one thing, a lot of Republicans were disappointed that Greg decided to leave Congress after one full term when there is a relatively good chance that a Democrat with good name recognition could claim Montana’s sole House seat against a non-incumbent Republican candidate.
A second demerit comes to Gianforte because he already ran for governor once and lost. Plenty of people think the same issues used against him in 2016 will resurface this year — that he is not a Montana native and that he has highly conservative views on religion. Plus now people can say he is a loser.
The third demerit is a wild card — Gianforte’s arrest for assaulting a reporter the day before he was elected to Congress in a special election in 2017. Of course, he has already won two elections since that assault, so it may be a moot point.
The last Republican candidate is Fox, who is in his second term as attorney general. He has the advantage of winning his first term by a comfortable margin and his second term by a landslide, so he has a broad coalition of support going into a general election.
On the other hand, Fox has modeled himself as a moderate Republican who can work across party lines. That might play well in the general election, but could prove a liability in the primary. One issue that works against him in my mind is his failure to prosecute Gov. Steve Bullock for his failure to preserve electronic communications from his time as attorney general. He will also lose many Republicans due to his support of the Salish-Kootenai Water Compact, which was an unnecessary surrender of legal water rights by Montana to Indian tribes on an intentional misreading of historical documents.
But whatever you think of the three Republicans, they should all be favored over either candidate in the Democratic primary.
Mike Cooney is a veteran Democratic politician who since 1977 has served in both houses of the Montana Legislature and two terms as Montana Secretary of State, along with a failed run for Governor in 2000. He is by all accounts a likable guy who is a supporter of all left-wing issues such as climate change, transgender rights, and abortion. His low-key approach though may not excite Democrat voters who will perceive him as not passionate enough.
His opponent, Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams, represents the “woke” faction of the Democrat Party. She says the Bullock-Cooney administration hasn’t done enough on education, drug treatment and other issues. Her main claim to fame is that she is longtime Congressman Pat Williams’ daughter. The downside on her in the general election would be that she worked for Hillary Clinton as travel director when she was first lady and later worked in her presidential bid in 2008. Clinton is not a popular figure in Montana.
Well, no election is a shoo-in, but if the Republicans can’t take back the governor’s mansion after 16 long years of liberal misdirection by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Bullock, then they might as well just sign a long-term lease granting Democrats tenancy for life.
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