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Dominoes fall as Stapleton leaves governor’s race, takes aim at U.S. House seat

Posted: 11:11 AM, Jun 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-16 13:16:31-04

HELENA — Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, the first prominent Republican to enter Montana’s 2020 gubernatorial race, announced Saturday he’s abandoning that effort and running for the state’s now-open U.S. House seat.

Stapleton, 51, made the announcement Saturday morning at the state Republican Party officers’ convention in Helena — the day after GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte told the same group he’s running for governor in 2020.

The long-anticipated move by Gianforte opens up the race for U.S. House and added to an already crowded Republican field for governor next year.

Stapleton alluded to that dynamic Saturday, saying the race for governor already had plenty of qualified candidates, and that the GOP needs to ensure that it holds onto Montana’s sole congressional seat.

He said he would be a strong supporter of the agenda of President Donald Trump, including the president’s efforts to extract trade concessions from China and other trading partners, and remarked that he’s the only military veteran holding statewide office.

But Stapleton likely won’t be the only Republican running for the U.S. House seat in 2020. State Auditor Matt Rosendale is expected to jump in, and others are considering the race as well.

Two Democrats already are running for the House seat: Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman, who lost to Gianforte in 2018 by five percentage points, and state Rep. Tom Winter of Missoula.

Stapleton’s departure from the 2020 gubernatorial contest leaves three prominent Republicans vying for the nomination: Gianforte, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell.

Fox and Olszewski addressed the GOP convention Saturday morning before Stapleton, each saying they are the best choice to take back the governor’s seat from Democrats after 16 years.

Fox said one of his top priorities as governor would be border security, and that he would be leaving on Sunday to visit the U.S.-Mexican border to talk with officials about how best to secure it. He said drugs from Mexico continue to be a serious problem confronting Montana.

Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, stressed his credentials on healthcare policy, saying it would be a good quality running against Democrats, and told Republicans they could always trust his word and commitment — a subtle dig at Gianforte’s decision to abandon the congressional seat less than a year after winning it.

Two Democrats so far are running for governor in 2020: House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls and former state Rep. Reilly Neill of Livingston.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney also is considering whether to get into the race.

Stapleton has been Montana’s secretary of state since 2017. He previously ran for the U.S. House in 2014 and for governor in 2012, losing both times in the Republican primary.

-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News