Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) Gov. Greg Gianforte’s campaign released his endorsements for Republican legislative candidates in the upcoming primaries Thursday with some surprising choices, including choosing not to endorse House leadership.

Some snubbed Republican candidates said the only endorsement that matters is from the voters and Gianforte endorsing in a primary only furthers the perception of division in the party.

House Speaker Matt Regier and Speaker Pro Tempore Rhonda Knudsen were notably absent from Gianforte’s list of 58 legislative endorsements sent out by Gianforte’s campaign Thursday.

The list included incumbents, newcomers and a mix of far-right and moderate candidates. But in contested primaries, the governor largely endorsed the moderate candidate. Gianforte has supported legislative candidates in the past, but his endorsement choices are surprising in some cases, with one analyst saying it’s a departure from precedent from previous administrations.

A spokesperson for the campaign did not respond to emailed questions by press time Friday.

In a press release Thursday, Gianforte said these were candidates that would work with him on priorities like property taxes, supporting law enforcement and education.

“We need strong conservative partners to continue building on our successful pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-family agenda,” Gianforte said.

One of the surprising endorsements included Bozeman incumbent Rep. Jane Gillette’s primary opponent Kyle McMurray, a political newcomer and optometrist with Manhattan roots. Gillette sponsored legislation supported by the administration, including a bill to restrict Medicaid funds from going to abortions that was signed at a well-attended ceremony following the 2023 legislative session.

Gianforte also endorsed the opponent in Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway’s primary, who had two abortion restriction bills recognized at the same signing ceremony as she posed with the governor. The Great Falls Republican termed out of the House and is running in Senate District 13. The governor instead endorsed Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, who can lean moderate.

Sheldon-Galloway said in a statement Friday the only endorsement she was after was from the voters in Cascade County.

“The most important endorsement in my race is the vote of confidence by the citizens for me to represent them in SD13. I represent ‘we the people’ in a bottom up form of government not a top down model, which the Governor obviously is setting up for the 2025 session,” Sheldon-Galloway said.

“One thing I’ve learned in my eight years of being a representative; Montana citizens deserve their voice in government. I’m here to be that voice. I will continue to represent them – the citizens. Look for my complete comments coming soon.”

The governor also chose to weigh in on the three-way primary between former Lottery Director Scott Sales, Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, and Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade– one of the most interesting primaries this year, as it features two current legislators in Carlson and Hinkle, and Sales, a former state director and legislator himself.

Carlson told the Daily Montanan Friday she wasn’t surprised to see the governor endorse Sales in the race seeing as he left Gianforte’s administration early this year in order to run.

Gianforte notably vetoed three interim health committee bills, including one of Carlson’s requiring Child Protective Services obtain a warrant before removing children from a home outside of emergency situations. Carlson led the health committee during the session. The legislature overrode two of the three vetoes, but not Carlson’s.

Similarly to Sheldon-Galloway, Carlson said the biggest endorsement she’s after is from the voters, “not someone who lives 100 miles from you.”

She said it was interesting Gianforte was weighing in on legislative primaries when he has a primary challenge himself. Rep. Tanner Smith, R- Lakeside, is competing against Gianforte in the June primary.

Carlson said the governor’s endorsements only served to amplify the perception of division in the party.

“Some people like to make a big deal about division in the Republican Party, and I think that endorsing candidates in your own party’s primary adds to that perception,” Carlson said. “Why wouldn’t you just be going for party unity?”

Knudsen said she didn’t know why the governor chose not to endorse her in her race. Regier didn’t respond to a voicemail left Friday.

University of Montana Professor Dennis Swibold said Gianforte’s decision to endorse in the primary is a departure from previous gubernatorial administrations. He said there’s always some action behind the scenes in the primary season, but endorsement lists like this are unusual.

But it doesn’t surprise Swibold that Gianforte wants people in the legislature who will help execute his agenda.

“It’s no secret that the Republicans who have a supermajority in the legislature have also had factional problems that have held things up or complicated the governor’s agenda in some ways,” he said. “I can understand why he would want to try to lock in as much of a Gianforte faction as he can.”

As for how these endorsements would impact how voters make their decisions, Swibold said it’s not clear.

“Montanans can be pretty individualistic, and so I can’t say how voters are going to react to the governor weighing in on their individual legislative races,” he said.