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As he sets out on his campaign for the governor’s office, the Kalispell Democrat hopes to unite voters around public lands and personal freedoms

For former firearms executive and Kalispell resident Ryan Busse, there are two distinct visions of “the Montana way of life.”

On one hand, “We can have a [Gov. Greg] Gianforte-style way of life, which means billionaires have lots of second, third and fourth homes. They probably put a sales tax on Montana citizens. They have some sort of repressive healthcare system where women can’t get healthcare. We lock off river access. We privatize our elk,” Busse described.

And on the other hand, “We can have the sort of Montana vision that we’ve had in the past, and that needs to be strengthened. That, for me, means strong public education. It means we have a fair tax system instead of whatever this BS is that they’re pushing on us now, making things harder on working people. It means that teachers can afford to live here. Basically, it means we can afford to live and play in a place that we love, instead of it being locked up.”

Busse earlier this month became the first Democrat to throw his hat in the ring for Montana’s 2024 gubernatorial race, posing a likely challenge to an incumbent Gianforte during an election cycle that many pundits see as an uphill battle for Democrats. Montana’s politics have shifted towards the right in recent years (an analysis that Busse disagrees with), and Gianforte, a technology entrepreneur who served as Montana’s Republican U.S. House Representative from 2017-2020, hasn’t been shy about using his own wealth to fund his political campaigns. The governor contributed $7.57 million in personal funds to his 2020 gubernatorial race, which allowed his campaign to spend approximately $8.9 million to beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.

In 2016, however, Gianforte lost the gubernatorial race to incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock during the same election cycle that then presidential candidate Donald Trump won in Montana by more than 20 points. During a 2017 special election to fill Montana’s at-large congressional district, Gianforte physically assaulted a journalist and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. For Busse, Gianforte’s complicated history in Montana politics, as well as his unpopularity in some circles, foreshadow what could be a challenging race for the sitting governor.

As he sets out towards Helena, Busse is optimistic about the race ahead and about his message, one that he thinks will resonate with Democrats and disaffected Republicans alike.

“I’m very worried about what’s going to happen to this state, and what is already happening to this state, given what Gianforte and the [Republican legislative] supermajority are doing,” Busse said in a Sept. 20 conversation with the Beacon. “It’s almost unlivable or unaffordable, certainly, for working people. Our housing crisis is a mess. And on top of that, [Gianforte] jacks up our property taxes to make all of that even worse. You combine that with the attacks on the freedoms that we’ve seen, which I think are existential, especially for women. I couldn’t sit by anymore and let it happen.”

For Busse, the Gianforte administration’s mismanagement of state resources and its restrictions on “our liberties and freedoms” sit front and center in his campaign. The Democrat called out Gianforte’s 2009 lawsuit against the state to block a public access easement on the East Gallatin River in Bozeman and his veto of a popular state bill that would have funneled marijuana tax revenue towards conservation and local road projects.

“It’s dangerous to have a governor that thumbs his nose at the democratic process like that,” Busse said of the governor’s veto. “Those representatives were sent to Helena to do the people’s work. They did the people’s work. And Gianforte basically gave them the middle finger.”

He also criticized the Republican administration’s constraints on “women’s rights to control their own healthcare” and looming property tax increases.

While this will be Busse’s first run for political office, members of the Busse family are no strangers to the political spotlight. Busse himself rose to national prominence after the publication of his book, “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America,” in which he chronicled his role in the American firearms industry and his subsequent break from the business in the wake of numerous high-profile mass shootings. His wife, Sara, runs a boutique communications firm that works with political candidates, and is the executive director of the ImagineIF Library Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Flathead County Library system. Busse’s sons, Lander and Badge, were two of the 16 youth plaintiffs who successfully sued the state of Montana earlier this year over its climate policies. Sara, Lander and Badge appeared in a campaign video announcing Busse’s run on Sept. 14.

Lander and Badge Busse pose with other youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, outside the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023, the first day of hearings in the trial. Thom Bridge | Helena Independent Record

Though Busse calls himself a “proud Democrat” in the video, he believes his moderate politics will award him supporters from both sides of the aisle. He said he has already spoken with numerous Republicans who plan to support him in the 2024 race.

“It can be kind of a loud, politically divisive place,” Busse said of the Flathead Valley. “I think that is wearing thin on an awful lot of Republican voters. I’ve already had some very ardent Republicans, or people in Republican circles, who have reached out and said, ‘Look, we’re done with this. We need a sensible solution.’”

More specifically, Busse said he has talked to Republicans who are “distressed about what’s happening with Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the way our wildlife are being managed” under the Gianforte administration.

“The economics of Montana right now are what are on people’s minds. It’s tough, and Gianforte and Republicans are making it a lot tougher,” Busse added. “The economy and our jobs are kind of half of our lives, and our way of life is our other half of life. We work hard, and we play hard. We struggle because we want to live here in Montana, and they’re hell bent on making that hard.”

Busse is the second candidate from the Flathead Valley to plan a run for governor. State Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, announced in June that he intends to challenge Gianforte in a Republican primary. Smith, the owner of a local construction business and former school board trustee, has centered his platform on regulating marijuana dispensaries and lowering taxes. Gianforte is eligible for reelection; however, he has not yet announced his plans for 2024.