In Missoula’s GOP headquarters, surrounded by Republican civic leaders, volunteers and veterans, Congressman Greg Gianforte recently made his pitch for re-election as Montana’s only voice in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Organizers called the event a rally, but instead of standing at a microphone and podium at a packed stadium, Gianforte spoke in measured sentences from the corner of an office suite while a few dozen supporters lined the walls and munched on pizza.
Campaigning statewide for the third time in two years, he celebrated the improving economy and detailed his efforts to reform the managing of Montana’s forests and praised President Trump’s policies for strengthening the U.S. military and securing the nation’s southern border.
Dressed in jeans and a collared shirt, Gianforte took questions from the crowd, including a woman’s request for a new campaign sign and his assurance that the next Montana Trump rally will have veterans standing behind the president, instead of teenagers making “icky faces.”
Gianforte nodded. “It’s a valid point. Thank you,” he said before taking a question about his plans to manage Montana’s wildfires and drawing distinctions he sees between himself and his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Williams, a three-term legislator from Bozeman.
He said Williams has no experience in the private sector, and her platform guarantees higher taxes and support for sanctuary cities. Her stances on guns received an “F” grade from the National Rifle Association, he added.
“There could not be a clearer difference,” said Gianforte, who made a fortune developing and selling a major software business.
After selling his first software company to McAfee Associates, Gianforte founded a second company in Bozeman that, after becoming the city’s biggest private employer with around $185 million in annual revenue, eventually sold for more than $1 billion.
His reasons for entering politics, he said, are his love of the state and a drive to give Montanans an opportunity for the same success he had as an entrepreneur and corporate executive.
“This country picked a business guy as president, and I’m a business guy,” he said. He and President Trump are “not the same person,” he added, but both “have knowledge and expertise in balancing a budget and setting priorities.”
After an unsuccessful run for governor against Steve Bullock in 2016, Gianforte ran the following year in a special election to fill the seat vacated by then-Congressman Ryan Zinke, who surrendered to become Trump’s Interior Secretary.
Gianforte then easily defeated singer and songwriter Rob Quist, despite a Gianforte’s much-publicized assault of a reporter on the election’s eve.
Since taking office, his voting record shows support for limiting congressional terms, raising military spending and easing federal restrictions on wilderness study areas.
Two bills he introduced drew criticism for their environmental implications and the lack of public input. One would grant access to over 700,000 acres of undeveloped and untouched Montana land that federal government listed as “Wilderness Study Areas” over 40 years ago.
That drew fire from environmentalists and recreationists wary of corporate exploitation. They also pointed to the junior congressman’s support for the SENSE Act, which removed emission regulations for some coal plants, and for rolling back Obama-era standards for the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I firmly believe that we can develop our natural resources and protect the environment,” he told his Missoula listeners. “Nobody is suggesting that we go back to the lawless days when the Berkeley Pit was dug. But the pendulum has swung too far the other way. I think we ought to look at common sense regulations.”
Williams charges that the two bills left Montanans out of the discussion over what to do with their state’s land and resources. Her supporters say Gianforte has a history of holding closed hearings on public issues, avoiding questions from the public and the press.
Protesters led a walkout from roundtable discussion on wildfire prevention in August of this year. Gianforte denies the criticism and said he has offered further roundtable discussions, including “telephone town halls” and “mobile office hours” to engage constituents.
Gianforte voted for Trump’s tax cuts, and said his re-election would put voice support for making the cuts permanent. According to Gianforte, the uptick in the national and state economies, and rising employment rates, prove tax cut’s effectiveness.
During questions at his rally, one supporter told Gianforte that his son’s vote would only go to a candidate with solutions for providing practical healthcare insurance. A strong critic of Obamacare, Gianforte said he would continue to vote to dismantle it, piece by piece, if necessary.
He described Williams’s support for expanded health care as a “one size fits all” strategy that strains taxpayers and ensures federal encroachment.
He said he favors coverage offered through employers and local providers. Such plans, he says, offer options that cater to specific health needs. He said a House bill introduced in August would allow easier and expanded access to health savings accounts.
After he’d answered every question, Gianforte mingled with supporters and grabbed a slice of pizza before leaving for a rally in Kalispell the following day.