Billionaire Tech CEO Laying Groundwork for Montana Gubernatorial Run

Greg Gianforte was once Sen. Steve Daines's boss. Now, Democrats are already criticizing his socially conservative stances ahead of an expected campaign.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has made headlines fighting money in politics during his first term. But if the Democratic incumbent wants to win a second term in 2016, he may have to battle the wealthiest candidate in Montana history.

Republican businessman Greg Gianforte is laying the groundwork to challenge Bullock in 2016, and the former tech CEO would enter the race with considerable resources to bear. Gianforte sold the Bozeman-based software company he founded, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion, and his net worth is thought to be somewhere in the hundreds of millions, if not actually over a billion dollars.

That kind of money would go an especially long way in a state with fewer than 675,000 registered voters. One Montana Republican operative, who didn't want to go on the record about a GOP primary that's not officially underway, said he believes "it is very likely that [Gianforte] will end up running, and that has pretty much frozen most of the rest of the field."

Gianforte's early maneuverings include time spent travelling the state attending dozens of civic-type events and keynoting GOP county fundraising dinners. Gianforte's also been promoting his public-speaking schedule and policy positions on his website, and in 2014, he founded the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a "statewide membership organization" for technology firms. The group recently released a three-minute, campaign-style Web video featuring Gianforte.

But Gianforte cuts a sometimes-controversial profile, and while Democrats fear the impact his money could have on the race, he also has a long and socially conservative record they're eager to pick apart.

Gianforte has never sought elected office before, but he has a long paper trail from involvement in politics as a donor to various Christian and conservative causes.

Gianforte has been a strong supporter of local Christian schools and religious education initiatives, and he was one of the main funders behind a "creation museum" in Glendive, Mont., that bills itself as the "largest dinosaur and fossil museum in the United States to present its fossils in the context of biblical creation." According to the museum's exhibits, the Earth is no more than 6,000 years old, and dinosaurs and people coexisted before the Noah's biblical great flood.

"I don't think most people think that's acceptable," said Dave Hunter, a veteran Montana Democratic operative. "It's tolerable for a wealthy, eccentric businessman, but for a chief executive who's going to make a substantial portion of the decisions about what gets funded in education, or education initiatives, it makes me think it's going to be a real problem for him."

Gianforte has also contributed at least half a million dollars to the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and has positioned himself as a fierce supporter of so-called religious-freedom measures. Emails sent by Gianforte to Bozeman officials, and obtained by National Journal, show he personally lobbied against a citywide LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance in Bozeman in 2014.

In one January 2014 email sent to Bozeman Mayor Jeff Krauss and Bozeman city council members, Gianforte wrote, "Homosexual advocates try to argue that businesses are leery of locating in towns that aren't friendly to homosexuals. I believe the opposite is truer."

Gianforte urged them to consider the impact a nondiscrimination ordinance would have on Christian businesses. He attached a template for a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," the same type of law that caused recent outcry in Indiana, which he thought could be substituted in place of the original nondiscrimination measure.

"No one wants discrimination in our community, but let's not throw safety to the wind, trample religious freedom, open the city up to expensive law suits and drive Christian businesses and organizations away from Bozeman in the process," Gianforte concluded.

In a second email two months later, Gianforte offered edits to a draft version of the nondiscrimination law that incorporated religious-conscience exemptions, including the right of any "faith-based university, college or post-secondary school" to deny student housing to married same-sex couples, "regardless of whether those couples are legally married." Gianforte also advocated for the right of religious organizations to "make employment decisions consistent with their faith," while noting that such protections should not allow "non-expressive" businesses to deny services to LGBT customers.

Similar measures in Indiana and Arkansas have recently proven explosively controversial and potentially discriminatory. The city of Bozeman ultimately did not heed Gianforte's advice and unanimously passed the nondiscrimination measure in June 2014.

Republicans, though, are enthusiastic about Gianforte's potential to build a profile distinct from his deeply-held religious beliefs, as a business-minded candidate with a solid record of job creation in the state. Gianforte grew RightNow Technologies, his software company, into an employer of more than 1,000 people—one of whom was Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Daines was a vice president at RightNow for over a decade before he was first elected to Congress in 2012. The freshman senator encouraged Gianforte in a statement.

"Greg's a close friend and I had the opportunity to help him grow RightNow Technologies into Bozeman's largest commercial employer," Daines said in the statement. "Greg's a problem-solver, a hard-worker, and has a passion for helping others. If he decided to run for public office, I think he would be a great candidate and public servant."

Democrats attacked Daines on social issues without success in 2012 and 2014. "While I personally think [Daines is] just as conservative, we couldn't prove it," Hunter said. "We can prove it on Gianforte."

It remains possible that other Republicans may yet decide to run. But competing with Gianforte's vast personal wealth and political connections could be a nonstarter.

No matter who the Republican nominee is, unseating Bullock will be no easy task, though the governor barely won a close race in 2012. An internal poll done for the Democratic Governors Association in October 2014 showed Bullock to be extremely well-liked by Montana voters. In the Global Strategy Group survey, Bullock had the approval of 72 percent of Montanans, including 53 percent of self-identified Republicans.

But no Democrat can ever get too comfortable in Montana. The state has now voted for Republican presidential candidates in five elections running. "It's just never an easy path for a Democrat statewide," said longtime Montana-based Democratic operative Matt McKenna. "In no circumstance. Even a ham sandwich running as a Republican could get close to 45 [percent of the vote] here."