- Associated Press - Saturday, June 15, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said Saturday he’s leaving the crowded gubernatorial race to become the first Republican to run for the state’s newly open U.S. House seat.

Stapleton’s change of course comes a day after U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte launched his campaign for governor, which boosted the field of GOP primary candidates to six. Stapleton, 51, told delegates at the Montana Republican Party convention in Helena that there are plenty of good people running for governor, so he will seek to keep Gianforte’s seat in GOP hands.

“I’m from Montana. I can win the big race. You know it. We need to do that. This seat is too important,” Stapleton said.

Gov. Steve Bullock, who can’t run again because of term limits, is competing for the Democratic presidential nomination. State Rep. Casey Schreiner and former legislator Reilly Neill are the two Democrats who have announced their candidacies for governor so far.

Stapleton was the first prominent Republican to announce his run for governor back in January, before Attorney General Tim Fox, state Sen. Al Olszewski and Gianforte joined the race.



Stapleton is now staking out early ground in what’s likely to be a competitive primary for the Republican nomination for U.S. House, with State Auditor Matt Rosendale and former District Judge Russ Fagg also considering runs.

Rosendale defeated Fagg and Olszewski last year to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, then lost to incumbent Democrat, Jon Tester, in November.

Fagg said Saturday he has not decided whether to run in the upcoming election or wait to see if Montana gains a second congressional seat after the 2020 census. He said he has ruled out running for Montana Supreme Court after Justice Laurie McKinnon said she would not seek re-election.

Former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams and current state Rep. Tom Winter are competing for the Democratic nomination for U.S. House.

Stapleton made his announcement after Fox and Olszewski gave speeches to the convention delegates.

Fox touted his law enforcement credentials and said his top issue is stopping the flow of drugs from the U.S. border with Mexico. He planned to travel to the border on Sunday.

Fox made a subtle dig at Gianforte a day after the attorney general criticized the congressman for abandoning his seat to run for governor.

“I keep my promises,” Fox said. “Now, due to term limits, my time as your attorney general is almost over. Out of the six statewide elected Republicans, I am the only Republican that is term-limited.”

Olszewski said his top priority was to keep Republicans unified and cited health care and increased access to public lands as his major issues. He said Republicans needed to take back the governor’s office after 16 years of Democratic control to roll back government intrusion on people’s lives.

“Once we get the governor’s office, that’s when the hard part starts,” Olszewski said. “Once we are the ones that are in control, we don’t rule, we serve.”

Gianforte did not speak Saturday. In his announcement on Friday, he said he wants to bring President Donald Trump’s “pro-growth playbook” to Montana.

Most of the candidates who spoke at the convention sought to align themselves with Trump, who is popular in Montana. The presidential race is expected to dominate the 2020 elections, Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson said.

“Almost all of the candidates are in the shadow of Trump,” Johnson said. “I think that in 2020, in the Republican primary for Montana governor, you have to attach yourself to the president.”

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