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Democrat Launches Campaign For Governor

This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a weekly newsletter with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press.

Kalispell Democrat and former firearms industry executive Ryan Busse launched his 2024 gubernatorial campaign Thursday, taking aim at Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in a guns, trucks and mounted-bucks heavy campaign video that features a classic Montana political ad motif: the candidate shooting at symbolic representations of policies they oppose. (See: Brian Schweitzer, at least twice, Matt Rosendale, others.)

The video shows the Busse family launching clay pigeons that read “20% Property Tax Increase,” “Anti-Choice,” “No River Access” — a reference to Gianforte’s 2009 lawsuit challenging a public easement on a river abutting his property — and “Defunding Public Schools” as Busse, occasionally grunting with disgust, blasts them with a shotgun.

It’s all emblematic of the kind of positioning Democrats in Montana have long employed in search of elected office — to be liberal, but in a plausibly conservative fashion. The third paragraph of the press release announcing his candidacy notes that Busse is a former Republican. In the final scene of the video, Busse launches a target that reads “Busse Can’t Shoot,” a statement his 15-year-old son, Badge, ballistically contradicts.

“They’re going to lie and say we can’t shoot,” Busse says.

Busse told Capitolized Thursday that he, his family and friends are all worried about the same thing: “This state becoming unlivable for working people.”

He said Gianforte is part of a radical right-wing shift in the state in favor of a privileged class of wealthy landholders and in contravention of the supposed Montana values so often evoked during campaign season.

“My Montana is a place where hardworking people make a good living for themselves, raise their kids with equal opportunity,” Busse says in the launch video. “Unfortunately the Montana that I love, and that my kids have been raised in, is being threatened right now. It pisses me off that Greg Gianforte just wants to sell this state to his rich buddies and turn it into a playground so only they can afford to live and play here.”

Busse was an executive at gun manufacturer Kimber until 2020 — a year before he rose to national prominence with the publication of his memoir, “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America,” which details how a Kansas boy who grew up around guns came to work in the industry he thought he loved, only to become disillusioned with successive mass shootings and the dovetailing of the gun industry with right-wing politics. He’s now a senior adviser to the gun violence prevention organization Giffords.

“I saw what happens when unquestioning radical loyalty takes over something that you care about, and how that can morph into really damaging things,” Busse said Thursday.

His sons, Badge and Lander, were among the plaintiffs in Montana’s landmark youth climate lawsuit.

Busse said voters are particularly animated about rising property taxes. The Republican supermajority this year failed the state by not rebalancing taxes between property classes as lawmakers had done in previous sessions, he said, and regressive income tax cuts aren’t helping.

“To be frank with you, the fix is not a hard fix,” he said.

He’s also upset about what he sees as a departure from science-based wildlife and lands management, which he said is eroding Montana’s recent tradition of aggressive wildlife conservation mixed with robust public access.

“I feel our crisis here is getting worse with the supermajority,” he said.

Busse is the only Democrat who has filed in the race. It’s assumed that Gov. Greg Gianforte will run for re-election, but he’s yet to confirm his intent to do so or file campaign paperwork for 2024. If he does run, he’ll face a primary challenge from freshman state Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside.

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