By Blair Miller DAILY MONTANAN
Ryan Busse, a former firearm company executive and author from Kalispell, announced Thursday his Democratic bid for Montana’s governor’s office.
He launched his campaign with a 2 ½ minute video ad proclaiming himself as a ranch kid, hunter, fisherman, husband and father with Montana values while attacking Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s policies on property taxes, abortion, public lands and public schools and his personal wealth.
“My Montana is a place where hardworking people make a good living for themselves, raise their kids with equal opportunity. They hunt. They fish. They work hard. They play hard. And they fight for the place that they love together,” Busse said in the ad. “Unfortunately, the Montana that I love and that my kids have been raised in is being threatened right now.”
Busse’s profile in Montana and nationwide has grown in recent years after he left gun manufacturer Kimber America and in 2021 published his book “Gunfight: My Battle against the Industry that Radicalized America.”
He has also been an adviser for the U.S. Senate Sportsmen’s Caucus and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and has testified in front of Congress about firearms. In his campaign announcement, he also lauded his pushback against the Bush administration’s intent to allow fossil fuel drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park that one of his sons is named after.
Busse’s two sons, Lander and Badge, were among the 16 plaintiffs in a district court case they won earlier this year challenging Montana’s fossil fuel and climate change policies. A judge found the state was violating the youth plaintiffs’ rights under Montana’s constitution to a clean and healthful environment.
And Busse was among several speakers at a July event in which Democrats urged Gianforte and his administration to opt back into a federal program that would have sent $10 million to Montana to help feed schoolchildren. Gianforte declined to opt into the program, and his public health department said that was because it was a “significant administrative burden.”
In an interview, Busse, 53, said while he had considered running for offices previously, the only reason he is running for governor is because of Gianforte.
“I’m really existentially concerned about the way that this state is being attacked and changed by Gianforte and the Republican supermajority,” he said. “I think just about everything that I hold dear, and that my kids hold dear, and that so many of my friends – I think all Montanans – hold dear are right in the crosshairs.”
Among the things he believes are under threat or attack by the Gianforte administration, Busse mentioned a woman’s right to choose her own health care options; the ability for working people to live in Montana; support for public schools; the right to a clean and healthful environment; the right to privacy, and the property tax increase that has hit most Montana homeowners.
“All of this has happened under his leadership, on his watch. And he has time to fly around in bajillion-dollar private jets to Tuscany, but he can’t be here to help flood victims in Livingston?” he said. “No, I wouldn’t be running if we didn’t have that kind of leadership.”
Busse said he did not coordinate his run with the Montana Democratic Party and said it’s certainly possible others run in the Democratic primary. But he feels confident he has a shot.
“I’m doing it because I think I can win, and I think that’s important. This is not some vanity exercise; in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be pretty hard work to do this,” he said. “I’m doing it because if I didn’t think I could win, I wouldn’t do it.”
He said he believes he is like many other Western Democrats in that he doesn’t fit the mold of what he called the “coastal Democrats.” He was raised on a ranch, grew up with guns and continues to hunt regularly – something he sees among many other Montanans no matter their political stripes.
He says his campaign strategy will be to be himself and not to toe the line on issues.
“I don’t know how to do anything else. I can’t fake something else,” Busse said. “If a bunch of people who are worried about me winning want to go say I hate guns, OK. Well, I still have got more than I can count, and I’ll go hunting every day and go shooting with my boys.”
Despite his campaign ad, which features he and his family shooting clay pigeons marked with some of the Gianforte administration’s policy stances, and his years of work surrounding firearms, Busse said he only will talk about guns if he needs to on the campaign trail. But he did challenge Gianforte to a shooting competition.
“Guns are not the central issue for me. I do think gun radicalization is important in the country, but that’s not why I’m running. I’m running because the state is under fire, it’s under threat.”
As to how he hopes to win over unaffiliated and Republican voters in a state that elected Gianforte by nearly 13 percentage points in 2020, Busse said his time both in Republican-heavy Kalispell (Busse moved to Montana in 1995) and working in the firearms industry has given him plenty of experience in being able to talk with people of differing political persuasions.
He said he doesn’t think Democrats have done a good enough job communicating to those groups of people that they share far more in common than they tend to believe.
“I grew up in sale barns and cattle sales and Little League baseball games and rural flyover America, and those are my people. And just because they’ve voted a little different here the last few times, I don’t think that changes what our common values are,” Busse said. “So we’re about ready to find out if I can communicate to them and if we really share common values.”
He would like to restore wildlife management models that he said Gianforte has undone with changes at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, stop the “privatization” of wildlife, have a better statewide focus on addressing climate change, boost public education and rural hospitals, and focus on helping working class Montanans.
He said his sons’ experiences in the Held v. Montana case played a factor in his decision to run – saying he was inspired by the 16 youth plaintiffs, their leadership, and the attacks on the case and the judge’s decision from the administration. Busse said his family has been “champing at the bit” to try to make changes and that they are “all in” on the campaign.
Gianforte has not publicly announced whether he will seek reelection. A spokesperson for the governor said he “remains focused on building upon what he committed to do and has proudly accomplished so far,” listing off school and law enforcement funding and cutting Montanans’ taxes as among his achievements.
Montana Republican Party Chairman Don Kaltschmidt called Busse “an anti-gun extremist and radical environmentalist” in a news release.
Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, is the only other candidate to declare in the governor’s race for 2024 so far.
Busse said he knows that the financials of the race will tip heavily in Gianforte’s favor, as he can spend his own money in the race. While Busse said he wished money wasn’t a central factor to political races, he believes small contributions from across the state will help.
Busse said his campaign will be about electing a governor that will represent all Montanans – something he said Gianforte is not doing.
“I think Gianforte believes he can be a governor for just one small slice of Montana, meaning the rich, radicalized slice,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I ain’t down with that.”