GOP duo reshapes Montana politics to match Trump's vision

Steve Daines is the affable one, the smiling salesman who plunged into politics and is now seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate

Via AP news wire
Friday 25 September 2020 06:04 BST
Election 2020 Montana Republican Juggernaut
Election 2020 Montana Republican Juggernaut (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Steve Daines is the affable one, the smiler, a consummate salesman who parlayed his corporate success into a meteoric rise through Montana politics and a seat in the U.S. Senate.

His former boss, Greg Gianforte is more brusque, sometimes even harsh, a self-made technology mogul whose political career has proved rockier and included a stinging defeat for governor and unwanted notoriety when he assaulted a reporter during a successful run for U.S. House.

Together they form a powerful political alliance on the cusp of dominating Montana politics for years to come, pushing the state's Republican Party away from a Western brand of centrism and toward the hard-line partisan agenda of President Donald Trump

Daines, 58, is seeking a second six-year term while Gianforte, 59, is pouring millions of dollars from his private fortune into another run at the governor’s mansion.

Dual victories would mark the latest achievement for men who first bonded on family camping trips in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains more than two decades ago. They worked in tandem to attain huge riches in the corporate world before leveraging that success into a political juggernaut that has reshaped the state’s Republican Party.

It's a shift Montana Democrats argue is out of step with the state’s independent-minded electorate. Democrats have their own power duo hoping to hold the line in November: Gov. Steve Bullock, challenging Daines, is one of the Democrats' best hopes to tilt the balance of power in the closely divided Senate. His lieutenant governor for the past five years, Mike Cooney, faces Gianforte.

But Democrats are handicapped by Gianforte's willingness to spend his own money on the race — $3.5 million so far, after spending more than $6 million in 2016 — and a strong push for both by Trump, who carried Montana by 20 percentage points in 2016.

Daines has long benefited from his ties to Gianforte, who hired Daines into his Bozeman-based software firm, RightNow Technologies, that was later sold to Oracle for almost $2 billion.

Years later, when Daines was in the U.S. Senate, he would use Gianforte’s private plane, including to shuttle back and forth to Washington for key votes — at least 11 trips since 2017, according to financial disclosure reports.

Gianforte, one of the wealthiest members of the U.S. House, has been boosted in his run for Montana governor by Daines’ clout. A strong turnout for Gianforte could now help Daines fend off the challenge from Bullock, a two-term governor whose handling of the coronavirus has put him in the limelight.

The similarities between the two Republicans were on display during a recent joint interview after they toured a high tech manufacturing facility under construction in their hometown of Bozeman.

Stitting across from each other at a picnic table near the same office park that houses Oracle, Daines and Gianforte played off one another’s jokes and finished each other’s stories. Both men linked their political careers to their Christian faith. Daines is Presbyterian. Gianforte belongs to the fundamentalist Grace Bible Church.

“We’re here to serve and not be served," Daines said.

“Service above expectations," Gianforte added. “It's the same theme.”

They cast the upcoming election as a stark choice pitting “socialist" policies of Democrats against the free enterprise system that Daines and Gianforte say has propelled the economy and their own careers.

“This system we have in this country has lifted more people out of poverty than any system in the history of the world," Gianforte said.

Asked if they had any political disagreements, they looked stumped. Daines finally shriveled his face and said Gianforte likes to eat the meat from black bears that he shoots.

“I’ll still take a good piece of beef,” Daines said with a laugh.

Democrats paint a more nefarious picture of the friendship, contending Daines and Gianforte rose to riches on the backs of American workers and that their claim to be job creators belies RightNow Technologies' role helping companies outsource jobs overseas.

Corporate interests still dominate their agenda, said Montana Democratic Party spokeswoman Christina Wilkes, who described Daines and Gianforte as being in lockstep on corporate tax cuts and repealing provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

“They’re mega-wealthy, and they are out for people like themselves,” Wilkes said.

One area where the two Republicans differ is personality, said Amy Wiening, who worked for Daines and Gianforte on the sales team at RightNow.

Both were supportive of each other and their workers, she said. But where Daines was easygoing and always made time to talk about family or matters outside work, Gianforte was more driven and could be harsh in his delivery, she said.

“He reminds me of a doctor you would totally want to be your doctor because he would know what to do. But he would not want to console you if it’s bad news,” Wiening said.

Daines was first to enter politics, running for lieutenant governor in 2008 while still at RightNow. He lost, then left the company in 2012 for a successful campaign for the state's sole U.S. House seat. He ran for Senate two years later, cruising to victory after the recently-installed Democratic incumbent, John Walsh, a former lieutenant governor under Bullock, quit amid plagiarism allegations.

Daines had been encouraging Gianforte to join him in politics. In 2016 Gianforte ran for governor, losing to Bullock in a tight race. He won the House seat once held by Daines in a special election months later.

To say the pair now represent the face of the Montana Republican Party would ignore the role of Trump, who has loomed at least as large on the state’s political scene and demands loyalty from Republicans.

Gianforte and Daines were initially lukewarm to Trump. When Trump headlined a rally in Billings as he neared victory in the 2016 primary, Gianforte skipped the event and issued a press release welcoming “another visit by a 2016 presidential candidate” without mentioning Trump. Daines told a Montana newspaper in the primary that Trump was “not my first choice, or even my second for president.”

They have since become ardent Trump loyalists. Gianforte caught the president’s attention when he body-slammed a reporter for The Guardian on the eve of his election to the House. “My kind of guy,” Trump said about Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after initially misleading investigators about what happened.

The fruits of the pair's loyalty to Trump are now on display: The President tweeted his support for Gianforte on Wednesday and Vice President Mike Pence headlined a rally last week near Bozeman where Gianforte and Daines spoke back-to-back and then enjoyed a lengthy shout-out from Pence.

Democrats as recently as 2014 held both Montana U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s mansion and a bevy of other statewide offices. The GOP has been in ascendance as the state has trended more conservative. The party now controls both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide post except governor and Democrat Jon Tester’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

Daines and Gianforte “fit the party like a glove right now,” University of Montana political analyst Rob Saldin said. If they sweep the November election, “that’s a real vindication of going in this much sharper, Trump-y direction for the party,” he said.


Follow Matthew Brown on twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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