Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte fought off a challenge from the right in his primary Tuesday, defeating Lakeside Republican Rep. Tanner Smith and setting up a matchup with Democratic former firearms executive Ryan Busse.

Gianforte was leading Smith 77% to 23% as of 9:05 p.m., Tuesday, while Busse was leading his opponent, Jim Hunt, by 42 percentage points in his race. The Associated Press called Gianforte’s race at 8:38 p.m. and Busse’s 10 minutes later.

Gianforte had defeated former Attorney General Tim Fox and former lawmaker Al Olszewski handily in the 2020 primary, winning 53% of the vote compared to Fox’s 27% and Olszewski’s 19%.

The governor said in a statement he was grateful for Montanans’ “outstanding support” and that the state needs “strong, steady, conservative leadership to stand up to Joe Biden and the far-left’s agenda.”

“This fall, Montanans face a clear choice. We can continue with our positive momentum and common sense conservative agenda, or we can turn the reins over to unhinged, unpredictable far-left activism that’s out of touch with Montana and will undermine our way of life,” Gianforte said in a statement. “The choice is clear, and I look forward to continuing to meet with Montanans where they live and work to make our case.”

The primary between Gianforte and Smith had been watched closely, as Smith, a freshman lawmaker and contractor from the Flathead, had painted himself as the true conservative in the race and called Gianforte a moderate, wealthy former tech owner. A March poll found Gianforte had a neutral approval rating among Montanans.

Some Republicans had also vowed not to support Gianforte because he fought their efforts to lower the number of mills the state was levying in response to large increases in property taxes last year and vetoed and fought a bill that would have provided millions in marijuana tax revenue to county road maintenance.

But Gianforte had garnered more than three times the number of votes for Smith as of early Tuesday night, and is now poised to face Busse and Libertarian Kaiser Leib in November. His campaign so far has focused primarily on his actions in office surrounding business expansion, tax cuts and fighting for conservative social issues.

Busse was beating Hunt 71% to 29% as of early Tuesday night and has long been the presumptive nominee for the Democrats. The former gun executive who rose to fame when he left the industry and turned against it has made the property tax increases under Gianforte his central campaign issue thus far but has also attacked Gianforte on public lands issues and his stance on abortion.

Busse said in a statement that Smith’s showing in the primary against Gianforte showed Republicans “sent a clear message” that the governor’s tenure so far has been “a trainwreck.”

“Montanans got stuck with Gianforte’s higher property taxes, his housing crisis, his health care crisis, less access to public land and wildlife, and his attacks on women’s freedoms,” he said. “It’s time to get your Montana back.”

Busse still faces an uphill battle against Gianforte, who beat Democrat Mike Cooney by nearly 13 percentage points and about 78,000 votes four years ago.