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High-profile GOP’ers shaking up 2020 political landscape; Stapleton leaves gov race to run for U.S. House

HELENA — High-profile Montana Republicans continued to shake up the 2020 electoral landscape Saturday, as Secretary of State Corey Stapleton pulled out of the governor’s race and announced that he’ll now run for the U.S. House.

The announcement by Stapleton at the state Republican Party officers’ convention came one day after the U.S. House seat became an open one in 2020 — because the incumbent, Republican Greg Gianforte, made it official that he’ll run for governor next year.

“We don’t need a bunch more awesome people running for governor,” Stapleton told fellow Republicans at the convention in Helena. “We’ve got plenty, right? … What we really need is somebody who’s going to take that congressional seat, and keep it for Montana, working for President Trump.

But Stapleton, 51, likely won’t be the only Republican to jump into the U.S. House race.

Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale is expected to enter the contest soon, and a conservative political group that has supported Rosendale in past election efforts is prepared to go after Stapleton.

The Club For Growth put out a news release Friday that said if Stapleton enters the race, it has prepared a digital and TV advertising campaign to criticize him on several fronts.

With Gianforte’s entry into the 2020 gubernatorial race Friday, as many as four statewide seats now held by Republicans will be open that year: U.S. House, secretary of state, attorney general and, if Rosendale runs, auditor.

The governor’s seat also is open in 2020, because Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is term-limited and can’t run for re-election.

In addition to Gianforte, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell are vying for the GOP nomination for governor.

Fox and Olszewski each address the GOP convention Saturday morning.

Fox said one of his top priorities as governor would be border security, and that he would be traveling Sunday to visit the U.S.-Mexican border to talk with Drug Enforcement Administration and Border Patrol officials about how best to secure it.

He said drugs from Mexico continue to be a serious problem confronting Montana.

“We have to stop this poison from entering our country in the first place and that’s why our border security is at the top of my list,” Fox said. “While we may be over 1,000 miles away from Mexico, Montana is impacted every day by insufficient border security.”

Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, stressed his credentials on healthcare policy, saying it would be a good asset to run against Democrats next fall.

“We need to win the hearts and the minds of the independent Montana voter,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, President Trump hit it right on the head: The Republican Party in 2020 needs to be the party of health care. And who else to champion that, than a doctor.”

Olszewski also said that he has the support of many GOP legislators, and told Republicans they could always trust his word and commitment — a subtle dig at Gianforte’s decision to abandon the congressional seat less than a year after winning it.

Stapleton said Saturday he’s be a loyal soldier for Trump, and also stressed that he’s “from Montana” — a contrast to Rosendale, who’s from Maryland and who moved to Montana about 17 years ago. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who defeated Rosendale in the 2018 election, often derisively referred to Rosendale as “Maryland Matt.”

Stapleton is a Navy veteran and former state senator from Billings, where he worked as a financial adviser. He won election as secretary of state in 2016, after two other failed attempts at statewide office: Governor in 2012 and U.S. House in 2014. In those latter races, he lost in GOP primaries.

Two Democrats also are vying for Montana’s U.S. House seat: Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman, who lost to Gianforte in 2018 by five percentage points, and state Rep. Tom Winter of Missoula.

Two Democrats so far are running for governor in 2020: House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls and former state Rep. Reilly Neill of Livingston.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney also is considering whether to get into the race.

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison

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