After waging the only unsuccessful state-wide campaign among Montana Republicans, former gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte seems to have the inside track on his party’s nomination for the upcoming special election for the U.S. House. After weeks of contrived “Will he or won’t be?” speculation (was there ever any doubt?), Gianforte is now officially in the mix. With all due respect to Mr. Gianforte, Republicans should say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Considered alone, the arguments for Gianforte make sense. He possesses high name ID, a strong fundraising apparatus, and a willingness to campaign hard. But his strengths are belied by considerable negatives, all of which the Republican Central Committee ignores at its peril.
Voting electors within the GOP should carefully consider all of the following before tapping Gianforte:
- In a year when every other Republican won state elections, Gianforte lost. Right now, his name ID, while prominent, is a bug, not a feature. Democrats successfully (albeit unfairly) painted him as a “billionaire from New Jersey.” This strategy decimated his run against Bullock, and Democrats will use it again just as opportunely. The millions of dollars spent on negative ads by Democrats still have purchase today, and they will for some time.
- Public lands. In similarly dubious fashion, Democrats pilloried Gianforte as a restrictive plutocrat who would block access to Montana’s public lands. While untrue, the narrative stuck, and certainly will endure through this election, as well.
- Dinosaurs. TV ads featuring paleontologist Jack Horner labeled Gianforte as an anti-science creationist who thinks the world is only 6,000 years old. According to a Fox News report, Gianforte’s (excellent) communications director, Aaron Flint, “forwarded a comment made last year by Gianforte in which he said, ‘I believe young people should be taught how to think, not what to think, and a diversity of views are what should be presented.'” In spite of this sensible rebuttal, too many Montanans found Gianforte’s creationist ties disqualifying.
- As The Western Word’s Mike Brown points out, “[Gianforte] is too far to the right for many people.” Brown, who was Sen. Conrad Burns’ former deputy state director, knows a thing or two about Republican politics in Montana. Gianforte’s struggles with independents and his inability to expand his core constituency in the face of an upstart opponent (more on this later) could cost Republicans a special election they have every reason to win.
- Montanans validated their approval of Ryan Zinke, who won re-election in a landslide. Since Zinke has occasionally carved out moderate stances on issues, wouldn’t it make sense — if the goal is to win — to appoint someone who is closer on the political spectrum to a winner like Zinke, than to prop up a losing and far-right candidate like Gianforte, who is more ideologically aligned to the flailing Tea Party?
Republicans should not underestimate Democrats in this election.
Imagine the following scenario: a “straight-talking” political outsider, born and raised in Montana, one with the endorsement of a popular former governor in Brian Schweitzer, barnstorming the state — with Schweitzer on the stump — on a populist platform of “Montana values” who will “keep public lands public” in opposition to the wealthy, “out of state” Gianforte. The candidate performs short musical riffs on social media, which quickly go viral. Aided by a friendly press, this upstart has no political record to speak of, and thus is largely exempt from Republican attack and media audit. In a truncated election cycle, where anything can happen, Gianforte struggles to win over the same centrists who rejected him in November. His opponent, a Democrat from Cut Bank, successfully turns the conventional political narrative on its head and captures just enough outsider-leaning, rural voters who embraced Donald Trump to eek out an upset. Can you say, Congressman Rob Quist?
Meanwhile, Zeno Baucus, U.S. attorney and son of Max, is reportedly mulling a run for the Democratic nomination. Decades of electoral evidence have affirmed the Baucus name in Montana. If left to face a candidate like Gianforte, who couldn’t get it done in an enormously favorable year for Republicans, even after injecting $6 million of his own wealth into his campaign, Democrats could, in this scenario, too, steal the election.
So who should Republicans pick? Other far-right choices like Scott Sales and Ken Miller are Gianforte Lite. If the goal is to “out conservative” the field, they might as well settle on Gianforte. (They also might as well spot Democrats 7-10 points off the top and prepare for a fight they may lose.)
But if the goal is to pick the strongest general election candidate, and to keep the seat in Republican hands for at least a decade, this one isn’t close: it’s Ed Buttrey.
Sen. Buttrey was the first to declare for the vacancy, and brings with him more advantages than does Gianforte.
Buttrey is a Montana native and also a successful entrepreneur. His business background is diverse — he founded Cable Technology, a manufacturing company with significant military and aerospace contracts, and he owns real estate and tavern holdings. Unlike Gianforte, he has actual legislative experience.
And while Buttrey’s role in expanding Medicaid has rankled much of the far-right, that seems to be just fine with the Great Falls senator:
Buttrey said his work as a senator isn’t about following the party line wherever it leads, but about finding solutions. His work on Medicaid shows that.
On his campaign website for the 2014 election, he said he would support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but also makes the concession that it is law and pledges to work within the law to find a solution.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world for a legislator to do to spout rhetoric and vote no on everything,” Buttrey said. “You’re popular, you can defend your positions, but do you get anything done?”
Buttrey is one of very few legislators — from either party — to actually get things done in Helena. No other candidate is better equipped for the frenzied culture of Washington wheeling-and-dealing.
It’s this commitment to solutions, not ideology, that make Buttrey the stronger, more representative pick for all Montanans. If House Republicans drift to the unhinged right (as they are sometimes wont to do), Gianforte will almost certainly follow the establishment herd, whereas Buttrey, in Ryan Zinke and Donald Trump fashion, will break from party ranks, if necessary, and side with the people.
Moreover, successful Congressional representation is to a large degree a seniority game. Tenure matters. Why gamble on a wishy-washy Gianforte over a stable Buttrey? Would Gianforte treat the House like his former colleague Steve Daines did, as a jumping-off point to challenge Tester in 2018? Or to run again for Governor in 2020? With only one vote out of 435, we would like to see Montana’s next Congressional member commit to sticking around for awhile. Buttrey has promised that he would.
Finally, we couldn’t help but smile at the opening line in Gianforte’s announcement email to his supporters:
I wanted you to be among the first to hear that when my good friend Congressman Ryan Zinke is confirmed as our Secretary of Interior and a Special Election is called, I will seek the nomination to fill our open House seat at the MTGOP Delegate Convention.
Cozying up to Zinke is clever, but anyone who follows Montana politics knows that Buttrey is much closer to Zinke than Gianforte is — personally, politically, etc. Republican Central Committee members know this, too.
Greg Gianforte had his turn, and he lost. It’s time for the GOP to look in a new direction, and go “all in” with a personable and proven legislator who won’t leverage this House seat as a stepping stone for higher office.
It is time, finally, for insider Republicans to put Montana voters ahead of party ideology, and the surest, most decisive way to do that is to nominate Ed Buttrey.