Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Raph Graybill has had close friends tell him they want to have children, but they’re afraid to get pregnant in “Greg Gianforte’s Montana.”

Graybill, a lawyer, has fought and won against abortion bans in cases playing out across Montana, but he said even though the courts have blocked legislation supported by Republican legislators and signed by Republican Gov. Gianforte, the laws still create fear.

“This stuff really hits home. It hits families, and it’s not a game for people who are outside the four corners of the Capitol building,” Graybill said. “It appears to be a game for them.”

The Montana Constitution protects the right to individual privacy, which the state Supreme Court has said includes a woman’s right to lawful medical procedures including abortion.

Monday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ryan Busse announced Graybill, who ran for attorney general in 2020, as his pick for lieutenant governor. Busse said Graybill rose to the top of a list of about 30 — including Republican women — in part because he’s 14-0 against the Gianforte administration.

“He’s the guy that you call if your rights are being violated, if you’re the Montana Association of Counties and you’re suing over unconstitutional vetoes, if women’s healthcare rights have been threatened, if you’re trying to preserve public access,” Busse said.

Busse, the only Democrat to announce he’s running for the job, said he wants a person’s rhetoric to match their actions. Busse is a former firearms executive and an author from Kalispell.

“If we’re really trying to save the state, I need to have the sharpest sword, and Raph is that sword,” Busse said.

Graybill, 35 on Tuesday, is from Great Falls where his law practice is based, and he lives in Helena. He has a law degree from Yale Law School and attended University of Oxford. His wife is a math educator, and they have three children, “the most important thing in my life,” ages 4, 3 and 10 months.

Busse and Graybill believe missteps by the Gianforte administration make the Republican incumbents vulnerable in their bid for re-election in 2024.

In interviews Monday, a political analyst said Montanans still like Republicans, but a Republican county commissioner who fought the Gianforte administration on property taxes said he isn’t ready to commit to supporting anyone just yet.

“I’m going to have a tough time supporting Gianforte,” said Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley.

Democrats took a bloodbath at the polls in 2020, and Graybill was among the candidates who experienced steep losses in statewide elections. Republican Attorney Austin Knudsen trounced him by 17 points.

That same year, Gianforte, a multimillionaire, won with 54.4% of the vote against Democrat Mike Cooney, who served as former Gov. Steve Bullock’s lieutenant governor. Bullock served for two terms starting in 2013, and the Democrat won against Gianforte in 2016.

Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, also a lawyer, took office in 2021, but at least in the last year, the Gianforte administration’s political moves have rankled even members of their own party.

In particular, a property tax increase in 2023, described as historic, put the administration at odds with most county commissions in the state, largely Republican.

Gianforte argued he made up for it with rebates, and he has touted job creation on his watch and a low unemployment rate. A poll in October ranked the Bozeman entrepreneur as having the strongest approval rating among politicians elected statewide in Montana.

Graybill said he first called Busse to tell him he wanted to work with him because he saw people responding to Busse’s messages about the property tax increase and the “assault on our Constitution.”

“I’ve been around for a little while now in Montana politics,” Graybill said. “That’s the kind of energy that creates an upset that knocks off arrogant, vulnerable, incumbents, that sort of natural, human grassroots energy. And that’s how I see this campaign.”

Graybill said Montanans are open to selecting a Democratic candidate when they get to know them and when those candidates reflect their values — and the Covid-19 pandemic made getting to know candidates difficult in 2020.

Political analyst Jeremy Johnson said the electorate is polarized, and it’s hard to move people from their natural political preferences. At the same time, he said partisanship may be overcome.

“But it’s more difficult than it was a few years ago when Montanans were regularly splitting tickets,” said Johnson, in the political science department at Carroll College in Helena.

He said Donald Trump is popular in Montana and buoyed Republicans in 2020 — the former president may be the Republican nominee for president again in 2024. However, Johnson also said Graybill is a prominent name in Montana and Raph Graybill has been active politically.

Graybill represented Planned Parenthood when it took on three laws that restricted abortion in 2021; Montana Supreme Court agreed with a district court’s decision to temporarily stop those laws, and the case is back in district court. In a separate Planned Parenthood case with Graybill, a district court judge temporarily blocked another set of abortion restrictions from 2023.

More recently, a district court agreed with Graybill and his client that Gianforte can’t use “executive privilege” to withhold state records from the public. In 2023, the state appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court, and it’s pending.

Earlier, Graybill successfully represented the Montana Nurses Association in a federal anti-vaxx lawsuit.

“He’s already been engaged in a number of high profile cases,” Johnson said of Graybill. “He’s very active in litigation on numerous critical issues. So he certainly has the biography, which one could expect for a candidate for lieutenant governor.”

Graybill served as chief legal advisor to Bullock most of his second term, and he said some of the things he’s most proud of working on are public lands and conservation. In 2018, he said Bullock asked him to save the Habitat Montana program, which takes a portion of hunting license fees to conserve wildlife habitat and land the public can access.

Graybill took the case to the Montana Supreme Court, which sided with him 6-1.

“We saved that program and hundreds of thousands of acres of open land are now available to your family and my family,” Graybill said. “And apparently it’s so popular, I see Greg Gianforte bragging about this program in his mailers.

“I’m glad he likes it, too.”

Public lands are a bipartisan issue in Montana, but Montanas have leaned hard to the right in recent years. Johnson said polls aren’t available yet to indicate whether property tax increases will make a dent in Gianforte’s ability to be re-elected.

Republicans held a supermajority in the 2023 Montana Legislature, and just one Democrat, U.S. Sen.Jon Tester, holds statewide public office. All five members of the Montana Public Service Commission are Republicans.

However, Commissioner McGinley, among commissioners who led the charge against the governor’s office on the property tax debate, said he bought Busse’s book a couple of weeks ago at a downtown bookstore.

Busse, who left the gun industry after 30 years, wrote “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America.”

McGinley said he can’t say whom he’ll vote for in November, but he doesn’t “entirely disagree” with Busse’s book so far, and he’s not keen on the incumbent.

Generally, McGinley’s opposition stems from the Gianforte administration’s treatment of local governments. Gianforte has pointed at local governments as culprits in property tax increases, but McGinley said the administration uses “sleight of hand.”

Most county commissions in Montana tried to counteract the increases in property assessments to blunt the spike in property taxes with lower levy amounts. In a lawsuit filed by the Montana Association of Counties, though, the state Supreme Court sided with the Gianforte administration, and counties have to levy higher amounts anyway.

McGinley also pointed to a lawsuit the Montana Association of Counties filed and won over Senate Bill 442, arguing the governor had to give legislators a chance to override his veto. The bill would redistribute revenues from recreational marijuana toward conservation and county road improvements.

McGinley said new people running for office need an education in local government, and he’s going to provide information and ask other commissioners to do so at upcoming Republican Lincoln Reagan dinners.

“Local government isn’t just a little red-headed stepchild,” said McGinley, who spoke on the phone prior to news of Graybill being selected as the second-in-command candidate for Busse.

Graybill said he sees people with concerns — like those of McGinley — approach Busse at events.

He said he believes voters’ treatment of Legislative Referendum-131 in 2022 demonstrates Montanans are still independent. LR-131 tried to protect “born alive” infants, but the health care community said it restricted providers’ abilities to care for babies and families.

Largely seen as a referendum on abortion, the measure failed with 52.6% despite significant Republican wins across the state otherwise.

Graybill said he grew up learning to fish in Sheep Creek, where his dad and grandfather learned to fish, and he learned to ski at Showdown, where his dad and grandfather did. He said he’s chosen to raise his family here because he wants to give them the same quality of life and traditions — ones he believes are at risk under the Gianforte administration.

“Montana Democrats have always been successful when they’ve been able to present person over party,” Graybill said.