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Republican Greg Gianforte elected Montana’s next governor

November 4, 2020 GMT
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Montana gubernatorial candidate and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte raises his fist after the Montana gubernatorial race was called by The Associated Press in Bozeman, Mont., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Tommy Martino)
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Montana gubernatorial candidate and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte raises his fist after the Montana gubernatorial race was called by The Associated Press in Bozeman, Mont., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Tommy Martino)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Republican Greg Gianforte won the race to become Montana’s next governor, defeating Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney in Tuesday’s election and expanding the GOP’s hold on the state following one of the most competitive gubernatorial races of the 2020 election.

The seat was up for grabs because Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock had termed out. He lost his bid Tuesday to win a U.S. Senate seat.

Gianforte, 59, who serves as Montana’s lone member of the U.S. House, was endorsed by President Donald Trump. He will be Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years, with Great Falls attorney Kristen Juras as his lieutenant governor.

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“I’m honored to be able to serve as the next governor of the state of Montana,” he told The Associated Press. “I’ve been pretty clear: I’m running to create more good paying jobs. Kristen Juras and I look forward to rolling up our sleeves tomorrow morning and getting to work.”

Cooney, 66, congratulated Gianforte late Tuesday and said he would do everything he can to ensure a smooth transition.

“There’s no doubt our priorities and our visions for Montana are different. But I wish you the best as you continue your journey in public service,” Cooney said.

One of the wealthiest members of Congress, Gianforte touted his business experience, which includes founding a start-up technology company in his hometown of Bozeman that was eventually sold for almost $2 billion.

Mike Cleveland, of Worden, said he voted for Gianforte because he considers Cooney a “career politician.” He said Gianforte was “kind of like Trump” because he has real-world business experience, which he said he liked in candidates.

“Get rid of the Democrats,” said Cleveland, 57, after casting his ballot Tuesday. “People are pretty much sick of the government overstepping its bounds.”

This was the second run at the governorship for both candidates. Gianforte lost his run against incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016. Cooney ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2000.

Gianforte is known for assaulting a reporter on the eve of a special election he won to earn a seat in the U.S. House in 2017. He was reelected to the seat in 2018. The assault incident drew praise from Trump, who endorsed Gianforte this year.

The race was one of the few competitive gubernatorial races in the country, drawing in record contributions to both candidates. Gianforte also spent $7.5 million of his own fortune on his campaign. Both candidates were found in violation of the state’s campaign finance laws over the course of the campaign.

The candidates exchanged barbs throughout the campaign, with Cooney calling Gianforte a “New Jersey millionaire” and Gianforte calling Cooney a “career politician.” But both candidates embraced their identities, as Gianforte promised his business experience would position him to improve the state’s economy, and Cooney said his experience holding public office meant he could hit the ground running.

Gianforte’s career in the tech industry began in New Jersey, before he moved to Bozeman in 1995 and founded RightNow technologies, a company that was eventually sold to Oracle for nearly $2 billion.

Gianforte, a devout Christian who subscribes to creationist views, has donated millions of dollars through the Gianforte Family Foundation to various organizations, including some that oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, and some that promote school choice.

Cooney, the grandson of Montana’s ninth governor, was first elected to the Montana state house at the age of 21. He later served three terms as Montana’s secretary of state and two years as president of the state senate. He was named lieutenant governor in 2015.

The campaign trail was shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, as Gianforte faces criticism for failing to consistently wear a face mask in the weeks leading up the election, even as COVID-19 cases in the state continued to rise. Cooney campaigned on the promise that he would protect health care access and enforce restrictions to limit the spread of the virus if elected.

Gianforte pledged Tuesday night to bring changes to Montana under a plan unveiled during the campaign that includes streamlined permitting for natural resource extraction, encouraging high tech growth, recruiting manufacturing companies and overhauling the state tax code.

“It outlines exactly what we’re going to do,” Gianforte said. “It was a positive vision that will help Montana realize the potential we’ve not been able to achieve under the prior administrations.”

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Find AP’s full election coverage at APNews.com/Election2020.