Why you should care

Because if you can understand this guy’s appeal, you might get the Trump hype.

To understand Greg Gianforte’s pitch for governor of Montana — and why he has a real shot — you have to travel to Colstrip, a town of 2,300 residents more than 120 beautiful, big-sky miles from the nearest major city. As its name suggests, Colstrip was founded by coal miners, in 1924, and the mines, along with the adjoining power plants, continue to be the largest employer. From the courthouse steps, you can see billowing steam pour from the smokestacks on the horizon.

Residents fear their livelihoods may be in jeopardy, though, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, which requires states to cut carbon emissions. And that’s why Gianforte, whose candidacy is still in the “exploratory phase,” has made the more than four-hour drive to hold a town hall meeting on a Friday afternoon. Weathered men with mustaches and ball caps go on about how no one in Washington is listening, and women lament how their husbands have dedicated 40-plus years to providing the country with electricity. Vulnerability pulses through their cracked voices; these people don’t have anything to fall back on. And pro-mining advocate Gianforte, with his Wranglers, cowboy boots and sweet Cindy Lou Who smile, has proved time and again that he can make something out of nothing.

The only consequence that matters is jobs.

He is the Trump of Montana state politics: a successful businessman, with a tendency for extremism and the allure of something different. Something better. Montana ranks 49th in the country when it comes to wages; meanwhile, many middle-class jobs come out of the natural resources industry, which has a ticking shelf life. So why is there reason to believe that Gianforte could turn things around? For one, he’s already incubated a tech scene in Bozeman. He also has name recognition, he’s a self-made businessman and he’s the richest candidate since the Copper Kings — according to tax returns, Gianforte reported $220.5 million in income from 2005 to 2014.

As I sit in Gianforte’s dining room, in the house he bought well before raking in hundreds of millions, the 54-year-old tells me his how-I-got-here story. Like that of all good politicians, it starts with humble beginnings: His first entrepreneurial endeavor was mowing lawns, and he met his wife, Susan, at the doughnut table after giving blood. The bootstraps came later. Gianforte, an electrical engineer, founded his first software company in 1986 in New Jersey (if you don’t include the one in high school). Eight years and 75 employees later, McAfee Associates scooped the company up. Then, in 1995, Gianforte and Susan, also an engineer, decided to pursue their dream of moving to Montana, where they embarked on starting another business. After calling 400 businesses and asking how the Internet was disrupting their product, the Gianfortes realized there was a market for online customer service. People warned them that they wouldn’t find a tech-savvy workforce in Bozeman, but the couple pursued RightNow Technologies anyway. In 2011, Oracle bought the 1,100-employee company for $1.5 billion. “The question for me started with how do I create a livelihood in a place where I want to raise a family?” Gianforte says.

Gianforte handout 1

Greg Gianforte

The stubble-bearded Gianforte, who calls himself an avid outdoorsman, appears to be in good shape. In some ways, he is the state’s face of entrepreneurship, with a how-to-bootstrap book, a mentorship and microloan program and a campaign that aims to draw telecommuters to Montana, which has the country’s largest remote workforce. A Silicon Valley salary with Montana quality of life has proved to be a powerful incentive. On top of that, the Kauffman Index has ranked Montana No. 1 in startup activity for the past three years. And yet, much of Montana’s recent economic prosperity has come under a Democratic governor, points out Jason Pitt of the Montana Democratic Party. “Unemployment is down, wage growth is up and we have a balanced budget,” Pitt says. “So you have to ask, what makes [Gianforte] want to run?”

The trajectory of Gianforte’s campaign will reveal much about Montana’s political future. Like many purple states, its big cities vote blue, while the rural regions lean red; the state legislature is Republican, but the governor, Steve Bullock, is a Democrat. In general, it seems locals lean toward the live-and-let-live, soft libertarian point of view, says Montana State political science professor Jerry Johnson.

But over the past decade or so, Johnson says, the state has attracted a small but vocal hard-right Christian coalition, which is where Gianforte, a devout Christian who grew up in Pennsylvania, fits in. “Montanans are just not strident people,” Johnson says. “Unlike the rest of the country, we’re not at each other’s throats yet, and he could really threaten how well the state gets along.” The Gianforte Family Foundation has supported anti-abortion campaigns and helped build a museum based on the creationist belief that humans and dinosaurs coexisted; in 2014, Gianforte lobbied against a nondiscrimination ordinance in Bozeman. He also caused a stir when, during a speech, he said that the concept of retirement is not biblical. “That’s the agenda he wants to push,” Pitt says. Gianforte says his comment was taken out of context, that what he meant was work is “inherently virtuous.” For their part, past employees say that he never let his religious beliefs influence business, equally promoting openly gay workers and those of other faiths.

While Gianforte dutifully calls politics “vile,” there’s no doubt he’s good at the job. The day before we head to Colstrip, he shows me an album full of photos of his family scaling a rugged mountain range. His foyer is a game graveyard, with a mountain lion, bears and bighorn sheep on display. But on the question of his enthusiasm for the outdoors and his support for natural resource extraction, he masterfully skirts the contradiction: “It’s not the top issue for Montanans. The only consequence that matters is jobs.” Rather than dwell on the ideological divides that are likely to alienate some voters, Gianforte is building his campaign around uniting people against a single, common enemy: 49th in wages.

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