Montana’s leadership is founded on a connection to its people.
BY TAYLOR OWENS
The story of the Montana governorship began in 1889 when Gov. Joseph K. Toole, a Democrat from Helena, led Montana through its first years of statehood. The Montana Toole governed was one marked by the extermination of the buffalo, tens of thousands of cattle and sheep grazing open range, and multiple railroads connecting the state to the larger nation. Imagine the Gilded Age meets the outback, a state on the brink of transformation.
After fighting for Montana’s admission to the Union and subsequently serving as its first leader, Toole returned again as the state’s fourth governor, winning handily even as Republicans were gaining momentum at the turn of the century. Toole set the stage in those early years for what would become the long-lived and nonpartisan backbone of the Montana governorship: compassion for Montana’s people.
Throughout his tenure, Toole achieved notable success by garnering support for a constitutional amendment enabling the direct election of U.S. senators. He also played a pivotal role in passing legislation dedicated to enhancing mine safety and safeguarding mineworkers, empowering county treasurers to collect taxes on personal property, instituting a workable road law and dismantling the prevailing monopoly that favored specific contractors in the production of public school textbooks. Despite facing setbacks, Toole ardently advocated for constitutional amendments supporting women’s suffrage and direct primary elections.His continuous support of the wellbeing and interests of Montana’s citizens was always at the fore.
“I would say that many of the governors, both Republican and Democratic, were very tied to local issues for the longest time,” said Jeremy Johnson, department chair of political science and national relations at Carroll College. “They took pride in that as well, thinking about Montana issues and Montana solutions for Montana issues. They might have different takes on that, but they were all trying to build on that.” Past governors agree.
“One of the most inspiring aspects of serving was the incredible sense of community and unity that often existed throughout our state,” said Gov. Steve Bullock in a statement to Mountain Outlaw. Bullock, a Democrat, served from 2014-2020 before making a short bid for president and eventually losing a tight race for one of Montana’s U.S. Senate seats. “I was pleasantly surprised by the willingness of Montanans to come together, regardless of political affiliations, to address common challenges we faced. While certainly things could get political, Montanans recognized that it need not always be that way.” Bullock’s tenure was also punctuated by his leadership of the state through the first year of the pandemic. More broadly, Bullock is recounted as uniting Montanans and transcending political boundaries, a hallmark of Montana politics.
“I was raised here,” Bullock said. “I delivered newspapers to the Governor’s Mansion as a kid. I went to public school and got to hike and hunt and fish on our public lands. Montana challenged me to make sure any kid being raised here has the same support and opportunities I had growing up and more.” Of its 24 governors, Montana has been led by nine Republicans and 15 Democrats. Montana has had one female governor, Judy Martz, a Republican from Big Timber who served from 2001-2005 and also acted as chair of the Western Governor’s Association in 2003.
Like Martz, other Montana governors have held prominent leadership positions beyond Helena. Mark Racicot, a Republican from Missoula and Helena who served two consecutive terms before Martz, and Montana attorney general before that, went on to become the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Racicot was also the subject of political drama in February of 2023 when the Montana Republican Party Executive Committee rebuked him, disqualifying him from calling himself a Republican. The party cited Racicot’s endorsement of left-leaning candidates including Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson and Democrat Monica Tranel in the 2020 election, as well as President Joe Biden over President Donald Trump.
In his letter responding to the rebuking, Racicot opened with this: “It’s not that the Constitution does not contemplate dynamic tension precipitated by differences of view. It is that it also, simultaneously, calls for self-restraint, sincere consideration of contrary views, a willingness to compromise, a mutual promise to serve the common good, opposition without oppression, rivalry without vilification, and disagreement without contempt.”
Racicot’s letter does what many governors have done throughout the history of the state—uphold state interests over party affiliation. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, for example, who served two terms between 2005-2013, emphasized Montana’s uniqueness as the “last best place.” His gubernatorial legacy is marked by a focus on priorities such as promoting alternative energy production through incentives, achieving a historic surge in public education spending while maintaining a balanced budget without imposing new taxes, and bolstering the safeguarding of public lands for activities like hunting, fishing and camping.
“Many of them took pride in finding certain policy areas or certain issues where they felt they could make a proactive advancement, and that goes back a long time,” Johnson said.
Gov. John Hugo Aronson, originally from Sweden, was a Republican who eventually settled in Sunburst and became established in the oil rigging business. Known as “the Galloping Swede,” Aronson restructured the state forestry office, implemented a gasoline tax to fund the highway department, instituted prison reforms, and founded a legislative council during his tenure.
Gov. Ted Schwinden, who served during the ’80s, was also widely liked for his closeness to the people and his efforts to improve Montana. He is remembered for leading the state through challenging economic times and for the 56-county tours he called “Capitol for a Day” events held in communities throughout the state. Committed to transparency, his personal phone number was publicly available.
“It’s a big state in land, but it’s a small state in population. So traditionally, governors go to the Fourth of July parades in small towns, they meet with small numbers of voters,” Johnson said.
Governors that fostered close connections with Montanans tended to succeed during their campaigns. The distances candidates have to travel to speak with constituents is unique to this state because it is not common practice in states like New York, California or Pennsylvania.
“There aren’t large groups of people just living in one place. The biggest city is Billings, but it’s not a big city compared to most cities in the country. And then you have a lot of people scattered in small towns and in rural areas with different interests and different concerns. But it was often thought governors who were closest to the people did the best,” Johnson said.
Montana’s political landscape is blurring with that of the rest of the country, and state-specific issues are overshadowed by national ones. Politicians and citizens alike describe a palpable fissure that feels foreign to Montana culture.
“We have a healthy distrust of government, which is good, yet we are respectful and concerned about one another, even those with whom we disagree. I fear we are losing that ‘caring about our neighbors,’ and polarization and national political bogeymen are infecting how we act as Montanans,” Bullock said. “If we will hold tight to the fact we share a lot more in common than what separates us, the opportunities for Montanans and our state are limitless.”
Republicans have gained dominance in recent years. Historically, Montana has seen a majority of Democratic governors—as well as some Republican governors—who have taken a moderate approach to working with Republican legislatures. This most visibly changed following the 2020 election, when Republicans swept every statewide office including its executive seat, which Gov. Greg Gianforte still fills, and maintained the majority in the Legislature. Then in the 2022 midterms, the Montana Republicans won their first bicameral supermajority in the history of the state’s modern constitution.
In previous years, Democrats could still win statewide offices much of the time by focusing on local issues, but the Democratic Party has had to reconstruct itself, not just in Montana, but in other states resembling Montana’s smaller, older, heavily white and heavily rural populations.
“There’s also a growing number of Native American voters in Montana who, 50 years ago, were not voting in as high of numbers,” Johnson said. “There’s an increase in Native American voters who have been historically Democratic. During the last election, a couple of precincts had a large number of Native American voters flip to being Republican.”
Voter trends in governor’s races show that rural precincts tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican with Democratic votes more concentrated in cities. The story of the Montana governorship is poised to add another chapter as another election cycle approaches. Gianforte is expected to run for re-election but has yet to confirm his intent as of Mountain Outlaw press time. Democratic candidate Ryan Busse, Republican candidate Tanner Smith, and New Liberty Party candidate John Gibb
have confirmed their intent to run.
Taylor Owens is a writer and videographer who spends her days running in the sun, playing in the snow, or on the hunt for the best breakfast across the West. She is based in Bozeman and is the content marketing lead at Outlaw Partners.