Greg Gianforte Wins Republican Nomination for Governor in Montana

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., is greeted on stage by President Donald Trump during a 2018 campaign rally in Missoula. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(CN) — Two years after he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Greg Gianforte has won the Republican primary for Montana governor.

Gianforte defeated challengers Tim Fox and Al Olszewski in the Montana primary election Tuesday, and Gianforte now advances to the Nov. 3 general election. Cast by his opponents as a wealthy outsider trying to buy the election, Gianforte had garnered 98,000 votes to Fox’s 50,417 and Olszewski’s 34,169 in unofficial late night results.

Gianforte now will face Democrat Mike Cooney in the November election. Cooney, Governor Steve Bullock’s lieutenant governor, garnered 70,243 votes, defeating Whitney Williams who had 55,805 votes in Montana’s first all-mail ballot election.

Republicans are fighting hard to win back the Montana governorship. A Republican has not held the governor’s seat since 2004 but the GOP controls the House and Senate in the state legislature.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bullock requested nearly two months ago that all 56 Montana county election offices send out ballots instead of opening polling places. According to the Montana Secretary of State, 603,635 ballots were mailed.

A popular governor who won in a state that carried President Donald Trump in 2016, Bullock, a Democrat, is termed-out and is now running for the U.S. Senate against Republican Senator Steve Daines. 

On the Republican ticket in the Tuesday primary, Daines defeated John Driscoll and Daniel Larson. On the Democratic ticket, Bullock beat Mike Knoles and John Mues. 

Late night results showed Bullock with 126,838 votes compared to Mues and Knoles, who had about 5,000 votes between them. On the Republican side, Daines garnered 162,968 votes to Driscoll’s 12,000 and Larson’s 10,368.

Bullock had forged a short campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out, saying he would not run for Senate and challenge Daines, despite urging from Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer. Bullock changed his mind and eventually entered the race, quickly running up support — as well as strong financial backing.

Bullock versus Daines is shaping up to what could be a pivotal November election. Democrats need four seats to flip the Senate into their control, and it appears Bullock has a fair chance of defeating Daines, according to early polls.

In the quest for Montana’s single House seat, which Gianforte has forfeited in order to run for governor, Kathleen Williams defeated Thomas Winter in the primary.

On the Republican side, Matt Rosendale outpaced Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, Joe Dooling, John Evankovich, Mark McGinley and Debra Lamm.

Williams had 117,031 votes to Winter’s 13,308, with about half of Montana’s polling places reporting. Rosendale had 88,726 votes as of press time, while Stapleton trailed at 61,680. Williams and Rosendale will now face off in the Nov. 3 general election.

In the state’s open presidential primaries, Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden had 99,015 votes in late-night results, while President Trump had 169,506, running unopposed for the Republican nomination. Montana traditionally votes Republican in the presidential race, with the state heavily carrying Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Going into the primary election Tuesday, the war of words among the three GOP candidates for the Montana gubernatorial race had turned particularly vicious, with the acrimony pointed mainly toward one candidate: Gianforte, who only two years ago won Montana’s sole U.S. House seat but abdicated that position to run for governor. Again. 

He had run against Bullock in 2016 and lost and on the night of his election to the House in 2017, Gianforte was arrested for assaulting a reporter from The Guardian at his election headquarters.

The other two candidates — orthopedic surgeon Al Olszewski and Montana attorney general Tim Fox — have leveled some incendiary comments against Gianforte, calling him a wealthy, out-of-state carpetbagger who is trying to buy the Montana governor’s position. Gianforte, who is often called the wealthiest member of Congress, has loaned his campaign $1.5 million. 

In an interview with Montana Public Radio, Fox said Gianforte has “pitted Republicans against Republicans and in an online debate, Fox said Gianforte is out of touch with everyday Montanans, and accused Gianforte of “social distancing long before the pandemic. He has ducked debates and forums, refused interviews with the press, avoided open public meetings and tough questions, and instead used his considerable wealth to try to buy this election instead of earning those votes.”

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