Candidates hit the airwaves on gov primary

Holly Michels, Lee Newspapers

andidates in the governor’s primary race are going on the airwaves in the run-up to the June 2 election, making their pitch to voters as ballots hit the mail in just a few days.

The governor’s office is open as Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is termed out.

On Tuesday, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney released his first television ad of the primary. The ad mentions the COVID-19 pandemic as “this crisis,” and emphasizes a campaign message Cooney has hammered home in recent days.

“Now more than ever,” the ad says, “we need trusted experience and Montana values.”

The ad, which is airing in Great Falls, Billings and Missoula, reminds voters that as lieutenant governor, Cooney was part of the Bullock administration when Medicaid expansion was continued in the 2019 state Legislature. The program covers about 95,000 Montanans and has helped preserve access to rural health care.

As he did in a forum with primary opponent and Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams on May 2, Cooney is trying to make clear to voters that he believes he’s the only candidate ready to be governor on the day he takes office, building off a lifetime spent working in state government. That, he argues, is more important than ever as the state faces serious challenges from the coronavirus.

Last week Williams dropped her first TV ad, focused entirely on how she would respond to leading Montana through a recovery from COVID-19. In it, the candidate says she’s the only one in the race who has helped rebuild communities after man-made and natural disasters. 

“Bringing Montana out of this crisis will take energy, new ideas and a new generation of leadership,” Williams says in the ad.

The issue of which candidate is best to rebuild the economy will likely be a central theme in the election. In that first ad, Williams says she’s “the only Democrat for governor who’s helped create jobs.”

As the founder of Williamsworks, Williams has brought together philanthropists and major companies to back recovery efforts in countries around the world. Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, for example, her company connected financial backers and coffee giants like Starbucks and Nespresso to get farmers back on their feet and guarantee a market as their crops matured.

But Cooney, in his ad, says he’s “helped create the middle-class Montana jobs that will steer our economy through this crisis.”

Since 2016, when Cooney became lieutenant governor, the state has added about 5,000 jobs annually, according to the Department of Labor and Industry’s most recent Labor Day report. Cooney also worked at the state Department of Labor and Industry from 2006-2015, eventually becoming deputy director. 

Williams also released her second TV ad of the campaign Tuesday, part of a six-figure statewide campaign, saying she’ll stop any law that would come between a woman and their doctor when it comes to making health care decisions. That ad comes on the heels of the GOP primary debate May 2 where all Republican candidates found at least one place of agreement, on their support of bills from past legislative sessions that would severely restrict access to abortions in Montana.

Williams’ ad drew the attention Tuesday, on Twitter, of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for whom Williams previously worked. That, in turn, caught the eye of the Montana Republican Party, which issued a statement criticizing Clinton’s support of Williams.

Cooney ended the last fundraising quarter with about $150,000 cash on hand for the primary, compared to $138,000 for Williams.

On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Gianforte ended the last quarter with $310,000 cash to spend on the primary. He’d already put up about $300,000 worth of TV ads in all broadcast markets across the state, as well as cable, through April and March. Since the last reporting period ended April 15, he’s purchased another $250,000.

Even when accounting for a $1.05 million loan from the candidate, Gianforte, who has vast personal wealth from starting a high-tech software company in Bozeman, has still pulled in more than anyone else running for governor at $2.85 million.

The recent Gianforte ads don’t specifically discuss COVID-19, or the challenges the state will face as more than 84,400 have filed for unemployment benefits. They highlight Gianforte’s resume in the private sector as the founder of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman and explain the candidate has a plan to bring good-paying jobs to the state, protect Second Amendment rights and more.

One features snippets from former RightNow employees praising Gianforte’s qualities as a boss. The ads call Gianforte a “proven job creator.”

“At RightNow Technologies, we innovated, created jobs and helped build Montana’s tech industry,” Gianforte says in an ad. “Now I’m driven to strengthen our economy so more Montanans can prosper.”

Attorney General Tim Fox’s campaign, which has raised about $720,000 and had about $34,200 in the bank according to April finance reports, said Tuesday it “determined a political television advertising campaign during the height of the pandemic was not appropriate.”

“Now that Montana is opening up for business, looking ahead we are finalizing marketing efforts,” the campaign said, adding that it does not share future adverting plans.

State Sen. Al Olszewski, who has raised about $278,00 in his bid for governor and had about $42,000 cash on hand going into May, also put up his first TV ad recently, appearing with his running mate, state Sen. Kenneth Bogner of Miles City. The ad highlights their background as military veterans who were both born in Montana and says the candidates are prepared to “fight for your freedoms and to regain our Constitutional liberties.”