By Martin Kidston
The candidates running at the top of the Montana Republican Party’s statewide ticket gathered Friday evening in Missoula to rally their base heading into November’s election, each promising to bring change to Helena if elected to office.
The statewide tour of potential land board members included GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Tim Fox. Elsie Arntzen, who’s running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Matt Rosendale for State Auditor, and Corey Stapleton for Secretary of State, also joined Friday’s rally, held just west of downtown Missoula at the GOP’s local headquarters.
“Today’s a big day – people are beginning to vote,” said Gianforte. “The election has started. We’re out to say thank you, reemphasize our message and rally the troops.”
The candidates’ campaign posters hung pasted inside the front window of the Missoula office alongside a similar poster for Donald Trump – the party’s candidate for president. The sign read, “The silent majority stands with Trump.”
Trump remains embroiled in controversy over alleged past sexual assaults – something he has denied – and vulgar language used to describe women.
Some national GOP leaders fear that Trump’s recent missteps could hurt down-party office seekers, though the state’s top GOP candidates felt it wouldn’t discourage Montana’s Republican voters.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t know how much that’s going to impact the voting here in Montana, because I think that folks are really focused on their statewide candidates and their local legislators,” said Rosendale. “They’ve recognized that their statewide candidates and local legislators are going to have a much greater impact on what happens here in the state than at the national level.”
Rosendale, who was elected to serve in the state Legislature in 2010 and was appointed as the Senate majority leader in 2014, said he’s bothered when candidates, including Trump, stray from the issues.
None of the candidates criticized Trump for his recent comments. Rather, they cited the need to stay on message, saying it’s what voters in Montana are most interested in hearing.
“I always try to keep the discussion on the issues themselves, and keep everything else out of it,” said Rosendale. “That’s what the people really want to hear.”
Each of the Republican candidates expressed a need to bring change to Helena. For Gianforte, that means fewer regulations, lower taxes and a more business-friendly state government.
Gianforte said the party’s top Montana candidates have put forward a platform that looks to bolster the state’s business climate and create more jobs. Trump’s campaign would have little impact on the statewide vote, he said.
“This federal race has not turned out the way anybody expected it to,” Gianforte said. “The No. 1 issue I hear when I travel around Montana is federal overreach. People will make decisions based on the individuals.”
Vondene Kopetski, chair of the Missoula County Republican Central Committee, said Trump’s struggling campaign has not hurt her party’s ability to muster candidates, nor will it impact their chances of getting elected.
For the first time that she can remember, she said, Missoula County Republicans have placed a candidate in 13 of the 14 local legislative races.
“I think it’s an insult to my intelligence, as a woman, for the Hillary (Clinton) campaign to try to make women like me feel that’s even important,” said Kopetski in reference to Trump’s comments on women. “It’s a bunch of smoke, as far as I’m concerned, and all of the women I know feel the same way.”
Kopetski said Republican women in Montana are more concerned about the country’s future, including jobs, affordable housing and taxes.
“We’re concerned about so many other things than the really stupid, made-up things the other side is saying and something Donald Trump said 11 years ago,” said Kopetski. “We believe in the Second Amendment and our First Amendment rights, and none of that has anything to do with what Donald Trump said 11 years ago.”
Rosendale said Montana Republicans are motivated, and he believes they’ll vote in the General Election, regardless of what happens at the top of the party’s ticket in Washington, D.C.
“We have enthusiastic voters, and we’re going to maintain that through the General Election,” said Rosendale. “If we do that, there’s going to be some major changes in Helena, for the good, and major, changes for the sate.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org