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Is Montana’s “GOP” Attorney General About to Switch Parties?

by Matthew Monforton Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who will be term-limited next year, ended speculation about his future a few weeks ago by announcing his candidacy for governor in 2020. What some are still wondering, however, is which party’s banner Fox will ultimately fly.

Especially after yesterday.

Fox ran as a Republican in his prior AG races in 2012 and 2016.  But he’s never embraced many of the party’s principles, and large segments of the party have never embraced him.

Though he’s filed as a Republican, uncertainty over Fox’s political affiliation intensified yesterday with reports that he filed a pro-Obamacare amicus brief in Texas v. United States. That case involves a challenge to the constitutionality of Obamacare – one that is supported by Republican state attorneys general in 19 states. Last week, the Trump Administration advised the court that it was supporting the Republican challengers.

At first, some Montana Republicans dismissed reports of Fox’s filing as fake news.  The idea of a Republican attorney general (who also happens to be a candidate for the governorship of a state Trump carried by 20 points) filing a court brief supporting Obamacare and opposing Trump seemed like a story belonging in the Onion rather than the Billings Gazette. And the brief’s electronic file-stamp date, “04/01/2019,” reinforced the idea that some ass clown had punked Fox with an April fool’s joke.  Especially considering Fox’s statements when he ran for AG in 2012: 

“[Chief Justice] John Roberts got it right when he said Congress put a gun to the states’ heads,” Fox said. “Certainly, in many respects, it’s become more evident that Montana needs an attorney general that will stand up to the federal government, mainly because of the Affordable Care Act.”

That’s also a slam at current Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democratic nominee for governor who defeated Fox to become attorney general four years ago. Bullock refused to join attorneys general in 26 states, all but one a Republican, who offered legal arguments against Obamacare in federal court.

Fox said he would have joined that effort.

Fox’s total reversal on Obamacare is only the latest evidence that Montana’s press corps might soon be covering a political transitioning with all of the verve Vanity Fair showered upon Caitlyn Jenner.  For example, Fox nearly ran unopposed in 2016 before Montana Democrats cajoled a political retread into filing a pro forma candidacy right before the registration deadline expired.  That campaign also saw Montana’s teachers union give Fox its first endorsement in decades of a Republican candidate for statewide office.  Fox won that race with 68% of the vote, a number big enough to include a truckload of Democrats who are already comfortable with voting for him.  

Democrats let Fox skate in 2016 because his policies are largely indistinguishable from theirs, from Obamacare to unions, campaign-finance “reform,” the CSKT Water Compact, and a host of others.  An application by Fox for asylum in the Democratic Party would thus be relatively easy to grant.

A weak Democratic bench makes a party switch by Fox all the more tempting – for both him and the Dems.  Montana’s current Democrat governor, Steve Bullock, is termed out next year and has his eyes on a bigger prize.  The Democrats’ only real contender, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, is past his prime.  He won a few races for Montana Secretary of State in the 80s and 90s.  Cooney’s last campaign as his own man was in 2000 when ran for governor – he took third in the Democratic primary.

But what is most likely to transform Fox from a fake righty to a switch hitter is the gazillionaire knuckleballer warming up in the bullpen.  That Congressman Greg Gianforte will seek the GOP nomination for governor is the worst kept secret in Montana.  And he will likely be unbeatable – at least in the primary.  Montana’s representation in the House consists of an at-large congressional seat due to the state’s sparse population, meaning that all Montana congressional candidates have the unenviable task of having to mount a statewide campaign.  The upside is that a successful congressional candidate has, by necessity, a statewide campaign infrastructure that can be (and often is) harnessed to seek higher office.

Gianforte’s now had two successful congressional campaigns. That’s enough to have built a formidable campaign operation. It’s also a sure sign that he’s been rehabilitated from what is politely referred to at the local Republican Women’s luncheons as the “reporter incident.” And he also has by far the largest base of donors of any Republican in Montana history.  Not that he needs it.  Gianforte’s internet startup, RightNow Technologies, which began in his Bozeman garage in the 90s, was later sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion. Not all of that went into Gianforte’s pockets, but enough did for him to mount a money’s-no-object campaign for governor.

Gianforte’s business success provides other advantages.  One of the many folks he brought on board at RightNow, and whose stock options skyrocketed during the Oracle sale, was a construction guy named Steve Daines.  A few short years pass by and then, before you know it, U.S. Senator Steve Daines becomes the godfather of the MTGOP.  Word on the street is that he told Fox to pound sand a few months ago when asked for an endorsement and is instead working the phones for his RightNow boss of yesteryears.

Given all these circumstances, a party switch makes sense not only for Fox but also for Montana Democrats. They hate Gianforte as much as they hate Trump, so Democrat Tim Fox could count on solid backing from his new party.  Gianforte will still be tough to beat.  But while a party switch wouldn’t guarantee victory for Fox in November 2020, it would give him the fighting chance that he won’t have if he stays in the MTGOP primary.

And history offers hope for Fox that, in running as a Democrat in 2020, even unsuccessfully, he could live to fight another day.  After running for nearly a year in the GOP Senate primary – and scoring a ton Republican contributions – Florida Governor Charlie Crist bolted the party in May 2010 rather than lose the GOP nomination to Marco Rubio. And though he lost to Rubio in the general election, Crist has since resurrected himself as a Democratic congressman.

A similar scenario might be playing out in Montana. A day has passed since Fox’s court filing in support of Obamacare. It’s now clear that the filing wasn’t an April fool’s joke. Now the question is how many Republican donors can Fox play for fools before he pulls off an increasingly likely switcheroo.

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