HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Former firearms executive turned gun industry critic Ryan Busse is seeking the 2024 Democratic nomination to challenge first-term Republican Governor Greg Gianforte in Montana.
Busse told The Associated Press about his intentions in advance of a planned public announcement Thursday. It’s his first run for public office.
If the 53-year-old from Kalispell makes it past next June’s primary, he faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat Gianforte, who is able to draw from immense personal wealth to bankroll his campaign and whose party has dominated Montana during recent election cycles. Former President Donald Trump won the state in 2020 with a 16-point advantage over Joe Biden.
But Busse suggested that Republicans are vulnerable in the state after failing to keep housing prices affordable, not taking action to prevent potential property tax increases and threatening women’s health care by passing several abortion restrictions.
“To me this is a narrative about Greg Gianforte making this a playground for the wealthy and ignoring the people of Montana,” Busse said Wednesday. “They had time to extend massive tax breaks to industry, to profitable industry. They had time to blow a $2.8 billion surplus. They had time to discuss the impacts of this tax increase to Montana homeowners, and they chose to do nothing about it.”
Recent increases in home valuations could lead to an $80 million spike in residential property taxes in each of the next two years, the Revenue Department estimated. The agency suggested a change in the state’s tax rate on residential property to avoid a tax increase, but the Republican-controlled Legislature did not adopt it, instead passing a $675 property tax rebate for resident homeowners in each of the next two years.
During a 25-year career in the firearms industry, Busse said, he directed the sale of almost 3 million guns from the manufacturer Kimber America. But he became disaffected as the increasingly politicized industry began aggressively marketing military-style assault rifles such as those used in numerous mass shootings.
Since leaving the industry, Busse has served as a policy adviser for Biden’s 2020 campaign and written a book and articles highly critical of the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers.
His remonstrations against America’s gun culture could become a flashpoint in the campaign given the strong support for gun rights in Montana politics. Busse, who favors background checks before purchases but opposes bans on assault rifles, predicted Republicans will portray him as anti-gun.
“I know there’s a vast, frustrated majority out there that are decent, responsible gun owners, and those are the people I represent,” he said.
Busse’s two sons were among 16 young plaintiffs in a high-profile climate change lawsuit that resulted in a groundbreaking ruling last month that said Montana agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment by allowing fossil fuel development without considering greenhouse gas emissions.
Gianforte spokesperson Kaitlin Price declined to say if he intends to seek another term. She said his accomplishments in office include increasing funding for schools and teachers, paying off the state’s debt and cutting taxes.
“Governor Gianforte remains focused on building upon what he committed to do and has proudly accomplished so far,” Price said in a statement.
Gianforte is a former tech industry entrepreneur who first won public office with a victory in a special U.S. House election in 2017, a day after gaining national attention for assaulting a reporter covering his campaign.
He was reelected to the House in 2018 and two years later rolled to the governorship in a race against Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. Gianforte spent millions of his own money on that campaign, which broke state spending records.
His victory wrested control of the governor’s seat from Democrats, who had held it 16 years.
Republican State Rep. Tanner Smith of Lakeside plans to challenge Gianforte in the primary. Smith is a business owner and school board trustee who said he would ensure high-quality education, increase teacher pay and support responsible fiscal policies that would allow the state to reduce taxes.
The filing deadline with the Secretary of State’s Office for candidates to run in next year’s election is March 11.
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.