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Nation & World

Montana Sees One Of The Most Competitive Gubernatorial Races In The Country

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Donald Trump carried Montana by 20 percentage points in 2016. The state is also full of split-ticket voters and has had a Democratic governor for 16 years. Steve Bullock, the current governor, is running for U.S. Senate, leaving an open seat. It could be this year's most competitive race for governor and has the potential to bring about major policy changes, as Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: In early September, congressman and candidate for governor Greg Gianforte toured the site of a new building in Bozeman, Mont. The site will house a high-tech manufacturing facility. In an interview after, he reminisced about the tech company he and his wife built out of their Bozeman home.

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GREG GIANFORTE: We showed that when you combine good leadership with the Montana work ethic, people can prosper.

RAGAR: They sold that business to Oracle for nearly $2 billion in 2011. The Republican candidate's pitch to be Montana's next governor is similar to President Donald Trump's. Gianforte will slash regulations for industry, reduce taxes and install new leaders at state agencies. His opponent, Democrat Mike Cooney, is the current lieutenant governor. At a recent campaign rally in the rural town of Dillon, Mont., Cooney talked about his family history. His great-grandfather owned a cattle operation in the area in the 1860s.

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MIKE COONEY: My heritage here is one of the reasons I wanted to come here and talk about the message I wanted to give to you today. And that message is Montana is not for sale.

RAGAR: Cooney, a career public servant, wants to safeguard and build on Democratic priorities, like protecting Medicaid expansion and pushing through a public preschool program. Recent polls have shown Gianforte with an edge over Cooney but within the margin of error. It's the only tossup race for governor, according to the Cook Political Report. If Gianforte wins, change is afoot. That much was clear during a recent debate hosted by MontanaPBS.

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JOHN TWIGGS: Good evening, and welcome to tonight's Montana gubernatorial debate.

RAGAR: Gianforte condemned the Bullock and Cooney administration for vetoing what anti-abortion rights advocates describe as a born-alive bill that would have required doctors to care for infants who survive abortions. Abortion rights advocates say the legislation is politically motivated. Infanticide already is illegal, and medical experts say surviving an abortion is extremely rare.

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GIANFORTE: I would have signed that bill. I am pro-life. He is not only pro-abortion. Apparently, he is pro-infanticide as well. And that is just not a Montana value.

COONEY: That is a bald-faced lie. I resent you saying that. To call me pro-abortion - I am pro a woman making her own decision on her most intimate health care decision. And I will tell you any attempt to take that away from women in Montana, I will be vetoing.

RAGAR: When it comes to gun control, Gianforte said he would support changing state law to allow for concealed carry of firearms without a permit.

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GIANFORTE: This is a point of very clear delineation between me and my opponent. I have an A rating from the NRA. I'm a life member.

RAGAR: Cooney said he would oppose allowing concealed carry without a permit.

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COONEY: That just isn't the way we keep our community safe.

RAGAR: Cooney stands behind the Bullock administration's statewide mask mandate, saying it's supported by science. Gianforte says statewide mandates aren't the right approach, and he'd leave it to personal responsibility. Montana, like many states, has experienced enthusiastic voter participation in the weeks leading up to the election and has broken its voter turnout record.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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