- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Technology entrepreneur Greg Gianforte said Tuesday he is considering running for Montana governor in 2016, confirming for the first time widespread speculation that he is mounting a challenge to incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock.

Gianforte said in an interview with The Associated Press that he will confer with his primary adviser - his wife, Susan - before making a final decision. “It’s a very big decision,” he said.

Gianforte, 53, is a political newcomer, but his massive personal wealth, his ties to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and his recent efforts to raise his profile could make him a top GOP contender.

“I think if Greg decided to get into the race, he would certainly be a formidable candidate. But the eventual nominee will be up to Montana primary voters to decide,” Montana Republican Party executive director Chris Shipp said.

The only gubernatorial candidates to formally file for 2016 so far are Bullock, Republican Mark Perea of Helena and independent Chris Zarcone of Kalispell, according to the Commissioner of Political Practices’ website. Public Service Commission chairman Brad Johnson also has said he is considering a run for the Republican nomination.

Montana State University Billings political scientist Craig Wilson said Gianforte has as much or more name recognition than any potential Republican candidate, and his background as a business leader could help him appeal to voters.

But he would have an uphill battle against a popular Democratic incumbent, Wilson added.

Bullock spokesman Dave Parker referred questions to the Montana Democratic Party. Executive Director Nancy Keenan criticized Gianforte as someone who has worked behind the scenes to push initiatives to permit undisclosed campaign donations, privatize public schools and prevent Medicaid expansion.

Another factor in a Gianforte candidacy is how his wealth plays with voters in a relatively low-income state. In 1997, Gianforte founded RightNow Technologies, a software company that he sold to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion.

Wilson said Gianforte has potential to be the richest candidate for office dating back to the Copper Kings of early-1900s Butte. That would likely be Democrats’ first point of attack, but the fact that Gianforte’s wealth is self-made could work in his favor, Wilson said.

“This was not Heinz 57-inherited fortune,” Wilson said. “It was a fortune he made in an industry Montana needs.”

Gianforte is raising his profile this week on a tour of 30 Montana cities and towns to promote telecommuting as a way of retaining college graduates and high-paying jobs in the state. He’s planting the seeds of a gubernatorial campaign by shaking hands and talking to people about his own move to Montana 20 years ago to build and manage computer technology companies.

“I owe my career to the fact that the Internet removed geography as a constraint to where you locate,” Gianforte said. “For the last 20 years, I’ve been working on creating better jobs in Montana, and this telecommuting idea is just the next step in that plan.”

Gianforte is a friend, political supporter and former boss of Daines. Gianforte hired Daines in 2000 as an executive with RightNow, where Daines worked until his U.S. House run in 2012, and the two men and their families camped and hiked together.

Gianforte has invested some of his wealth in grants through the Gianforte Family Foundation that have benefited causes ranging from the arts to anti-abortion campaigns. The foundation’s donations include money for a dinosaur museum in Glendive that holds a biblical perspective that the world was created a few thousand years ago and humans and dinosaurs coexisted.

In 2013, Gianforte introduced a privately funded initiative to teach high school students the basics of software development in an effort to gear more Montana students toward computer science degrees. Also in 2013, he joined the board of directors at FICO, a leading predictive analytics and decision management software company.

He has been a major contributor to the conservative Montana Family Foundation, which Susan Gianforte chairs.

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