With President Donald Trump’s cardboard cutout double presiding from the corner, more than 100 people, including 20 Montana candidates, packed the Duck Inn’s Olympic Room for the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner on Sunday.
The gathering provided supporters and candidates a chance to dine on prime rib, meet and mingle, and most importantly, discuss how to keep or put Montana elected positions in Republican hands.
With so many good candidates, the party’s in good shape, Hill and Blaine County’s Republican chairs, Andrew Brekke and Don Richman, reiterated multiple times.
After 16 years of Democratic control of the governorship and with Gov. Steve Bullock termed out, Republicans see 2020 as a great opportunity to finally win the highest elected position in the state.
Republican voters have three choices to best represent them in the general election, when Democrats Lt. Governor Mike Cooney, Whitney Williams or Libertarian Ron Vandevender, will await their challenge. U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, and Sen. AL Olszewski each believe they would make the best governor.
Montana’s lone U.S. Representative Gianforte started his four-minute presentation by invoking Trump.
“This is what winning looks like,” Gianforte told the crowd of 114, adding that the enthusiastic Republican turnout at the Duck Inn reflects what he has seen all across the state.
Citing a humming national economy with Trump at the helm, Gianforte said it should be used as the blueprint for Montana.
The Congressman, who ran for governor in 2016 and lost to Bullock, said he believes his experience as an entrepreneur – he founded and sold RightNow Technologies—sets him apart from his opponents, Republican or Democratic. He has experience creating high-wage jobs, he pointed out. His website says that, through his former company, he created 500 jobs. And, if he is elected governor, he will focus on increasing good-paying jobs in Big Sky Country.
Fox is the Montana Attorney General and has been for eight years. He’s pitching himself as someone who’s not only done his job well, but also is the most electable in the general election.
Since being elected to serve as Montana Attorney General in 2012, Fox said he’s focused on stopping federal overreach, decreasing the burden placed on Montana businesses, and promoting public safety.
“We want a Republican governor,” he said. But, he added, it’s important that voters choose someone who not only can win the primary, but can also beat the Democrat in the general election.
During his 2016 re-election bid, Fox won Montana with 68% of the vote, he told the crowd. He won 54 of 56 counties. He’s the man to win against Democrats.
Olszewski, a state senator from Kalispell who served as a surgeon in the Air Force and a doctor in private practice, sees himself as the candidate who best understands the health care issues Montanans face.
As the “David” candidate facing the Goliaths — Gianforte and Fox– Olszewski said he is working hard to gain what his opponents have more of — name recognition — and to show voters he is the man for the job.
Look for a profile on Olszewski in The Herald soon.
The race for Montana’s lone United States Congressional seat is crowded. Four Republican candidates were in Havre Sunday night.
Matt Rosendale, the state’s current state auditor and candidate widely considered the Republican front runner, rattled off a list of accomplishments, including eradicating 55 regulations, reducing insurance premiums by 15%, and cutting his office’s operating costs by 23%.
In 2018, Rosendale made an unsuccessful run against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. As he did then, Rosendale again has Trump’s support. On Sunday, he announced that he’d recently gained the president’s endorsement for the U.S. Congress.
Rosendale said he looked forward to returning to the Lincoln Dinner Dinner next year, and by then, maybe it will be called the Lincoln Reagan Trump Dinner.
Joe Dooling, a rancher from the Helena valley and chairman of the Lewis and Clark County GOP Central Committee, said Montana needs “someone with cowboy boots” in the U.S. House, referring to his agricultural background.
Another concern, and impetus for putting his hat in the ring, is health care, Dooling said.
“It’s the only thing that we ever do in our lives that we have no control over,” he said. Patients have no idea what procedures cost and they have no ability to negotiate. And that is why the health care industry can do with some free market principles.
Dooling was the only Republican candidate raffling off a rifle Sunday night to raise money.
Debra Lamm, a former Montana State Legislator and former State Republican Party Chair from Livingston, cited education as the pivot point for the country’s direction.
“If you look at the foundations of everything, it all comes back to education,” she said.
Things have changed in the schools, Lamm said. Prayer, The Pledge of Allegiance and American history have been removed from public schools, she said, adding the result is “we’ve raised two generations of socialists.”
Lamm summarized her platform by holding up a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution: limited government with very limited authority.
Corey Stapleton, another Republican vacating a run at his current position to nab the coveted congressional seat, is the current Secretary of State. Stapleton made unsuccessful primary bids for governor in 2012 and the U.S. House in 2014.
Stapleton, a former state senator, invoked his experience in politics, the military– where he was a Naval officer — and the private sector, where he is a financial advisor, as someone “who knows how the world works.”
On the Democrat side, either Kathleen Williams or Tom Winter await in the wings. Williams is considered the more formidable opponent, whom Republicans said they expect to face. Dooling referred to her as “the real deal,” after saying she had a large number of Montana donors compared to Rosendale and that Republicans must be careful who they vote out of the primary.
“It’s going to be a crazy year,” Stapleton said, winding down. “Folks, this is a race that we cannot take for granted. I will beat Kathleen Williams.”
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Write to Paul Dragu at [email protected]