In Red Montana, Two Democrats Take a New Political Approach: Attack - The World News

In Red Montana, Two Democrats Take a New Political Approach: Attack

At a recent campaign event at a brewpub in Whitefish, Mont., Ryan Busse was laying into his political opponent, Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, with surprising vehemence for a red-state Democrat.

He criticized Mr. Gianforte, who is running for a second term, as an elite, out-of-state rich interloper who simply does not understand Montanans.

“I love putting the punch on this guy, because there’s so many places to put it on him,” Mr. Busse told the crowd.

A former gun industry executive whose 2021 book “Gunfight” denounced the industry would seem like an unlikely candidate for governor in a state that loves its guns, especially since his book vaulted him to stardom in gun-control circles.

But Mr. Busse, 54, and his running mate, Raph Graybill, 35, a crusading constitutional lawyer in Montana, are testing a new approach to campaigning as Democrats in Republican states. Instead of adopting the soft-spoken moderation of, say, the governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, or the recently retired Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, or even the last Democratic governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, Mr. Busse and Mr. Graybill are campaigning as fighters, eager to activate not only the state’s few progressives but also its many voters disaffected with both parties.

If nothing else, their campaign might bolster turnout for another endangered Democrat seeking election in a state almost sure to vote for former President Donald J. Trump in November, Senator Jon Tester.

“We have to break the mold of what people think of as a Democrat in a state like this,” Mr. Busse said as he hiked the mountains outside his home in Kalispell with his four braying hunting dogs. “We’ve got to shake things up and be loud and bold, and it just so happens that’s the only gear I’ve got.”

In red states in the South and West, where Republican candidates tend to be the loud and bold ones, Democrats usually opt for quiet contrast. Josh Stein, the North Carolina attorney general running for governor against an arch conservative, Mark Robinson, has put himself forward as the moderate consensus maker. In Indiana, Democrats searching for a candidate for their state’s open governorship landed on Jennifer McCormick, who was elected state school superintendent in 2016 as a Republican and has positioned herself as a centrist.

That is not the Busse-Graybill way. Mr. Busse, as vice president for sales at the high-end gun manufacturer Kimber, likes to say he sold “millions of guns” to Americans before turning on the industry from the inside and denouncing its increasingly militaristic, militant mode of marketing and politics. That made Mr. Busse, an avid hunter and sport shooter, an apostate in the gun world, but he insists that no Democrat is better equipped to counter western Republicans and their uncompromising views on gun rights.

Mr. Busse opposes an assault weapons ban, and he supports universal background checks for gun purchases and red-flag laws that allow the police to confiscate the weapons of those deemed a threat — but, mainly, he disparages the carrying of high-powered weapons like AR-15s as political statements to, as he puts it, “own the libs.”

His sons, Badge, 16, and Lander, 19, were plaintiffs in a lawsuit that held that the state’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil-fuel projects violated Montana’s Constitution. Last summer, a judge agreed in a landmark ruling.

The president of the 1972 convention that drafted the state’s Constitution was Leo Graybill, Mr. Graybill’s grandfather. And Mr. Graybill has been a zealous guardian of his family legacy, suing the Gianforte administration eight times over abortion restrictions that the courts agreed violated the state’s guarantee to a right to privacy. In all, Mr. Graybill has sued the state 18 times over constitutional issues — and won every case.

Now, in addition to running for lieutenant governor, Mr. Graybill is leading the legal fight to get an amendment to the state constitution that would explicitly protect abortion access onto the Montana ballot this November.

Democrats insist they have a chance to win back the governor’s mansion. Mr. Gianforte broke into the national consciousness in 2017 when he body-slammed a reporter the night before his special election to the House. Charged with assault, he was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger-management classes. A wealthy former software executive, Mr. Gianforte still won re-election to the House in 2018, then won the governorship in 2020.

But Mr. Busse’s campaign is focused less on the governor’s temper than on painting him as an out-of-touch outsider who is changing Montana in ways the independent, rugged West doesn’t want. Wealthy newcomers like Mr. Gianforte, who moved to Montana in 1995 after selling his software company for $10 million, have helped drive housing prices sky high, Mr. Busse has argued, and rather than adjust property tax rates to ease the rising tax burden, the Republican governor and Legislature let property taxes shoot upward on homeowners while protecting businesses, especially pipeline owners, with lower rates. (Mr. Busse actually moved to the state the same year, to head sales for Kimber.)

“We get to be two Democrats running against the biggest tax increase in state history,” Mr. Graybill told a friendly gathering in late April at a fund-raiser in Missoula. “Come on.”

Mr. Gianforte did convene a bipartisan task force to look at the state’s property tax issue this year, and last month extended deadlines for two existing property tax relief funds for Montanans on fixed or limited incomes or who are disabled veterans.

A spokesman for Mr. Gianforte, Sean Southard, said property tax rebates of up to $1,350 actually saved Montanans overall, but he also blamed local governments in the state, which spend the tax money.

“While the governor’s property tax rebate helped, Montanans have seen property taxes rise too much as some local governments grow their spending at alarming rates, driven in part by a series of voter-approved mill levies,” he said. “The governor is committed to working with local partners, through his property tax task force, and the Legislature to make permanent reforms to provide homeowners with significant, long-term property tax relief.”

If nothing else, Mr. Busse argues, there will be a virtuous circle tying his campaign to the far better financed, more prominent race to get Mr. Tester re-elected to the Senate. The advertising blitz for that campaign will bring voters out for all Democrats, while Mr. Busse’s smash-mouth style could energize Montanans sick of more seasoned politicians from both parties. As Mr. Tester fills the airwaves, Mr. Busse and Mr. Graybill are flooding social media with cheeky, irreverent — and sometimes gross — social media posts.

In Mr. Busse’s brash style, Republicans see a gift. The Republican Governors Association recently assembled a montage of Busse bluster — “I live in Kalispell, some of you might have heard, not the most enlightened political place in the world” — and set it to silly music, banking that Mr. Busse will turn off, rather than activate, Montana voters.

“From insulting Montanans on the campaign trail to his liberal talking points, he continues to blatantly show why Montanans will reject him handily this fall,” the association’s spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said.

After Mr. Busse and Mr. Graybill spoke to Prof. Robert Saldin’s political science class at the University of Montana, Abe Malley, a senior, gently confronted Mr. Busse on his gun stances. The candidate fired back, blazing, suggesting that the 29-year-old student — a former Marine studying to become a social studies teacher — wanted to “own the libs” by defending the purchase of military-style AR-15s in case Democrats ban them.

Weeks later, Mr. Malley was still surprised and insulted.

“With guns in Montana, he’s going to have a very hard time swinging people,” he said of Mr. Busse. “I really do think I’m in the middle, and his stance is just weird enough that I don’t know if I can trust him.”

Even Democrats have their doubts. Officials at the Democratic Governors Association are taking a wait-and-see approach to the race, knowing that defeating an incumbent governor is extremely difficult, even in a more closely divided state. Mr. Gianforte will have plenty of money, from his own bank accounts and from wealthy allies, and Mr. Trump will bring out his base.

Local newspapers have shrunk or disappeared in much of Montana. Mr. Graybill has criticized what he sees as largely friendly coverage of Mr. Gianforte from the media outlets that remain, especially television stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast group. Robert E. Smith, a longtime Sinclair director, is an ally of the governor.

“If we can communicate, we can win,” Mr. Graybill said.

Fred Van Valkenburg, who attended the fund-raiser in Missoula, at the home of Daniel and Kay Kiely, was a former Montana State Senate majority leader and Senate president. He cautioned that while Mr. Gianforte could have headed off the big property tax, most voters tend to blame their city and county governments, which collect the revenue.

“I think Tester can win,” Mr. Van Valkenburg said. “Busse’s got a higher hill to climb.”

But others see a path forward. Carter Fredenberg, 37, was in Whitefish to watch Mr. Busse at the brewpub. A biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service and a fifth-generation Kalispell resident, he said, “Things have changed in four years, big time,” and not for the better.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought a flood of rich conservatives from the coast who have pressed for more controls on access to rivers for fishing and lands for hunting. Housing prices are increasing fears that Montana could be rendered a playground for the rich.

And as Mr. Busse was ripping into Mr. Gianforte as a “weird dude” policing Montana’s doctors offices and bedrooms, Ron Gerson, the chairman of the Flathead County Democrats, liked what he was seeing at Jeremiah Johnson Brewing.

“We’ve been too nice,” he said of his party. “You can’t be nice in this environment.”

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