When Ryan Busse, a Democrat from Kalispell, announced his bid for Montana governor in September, Don Kaltschmidt, chair of the state Republican Party, immediately condemned him as an “anti-gun extremist and radical environmentalist.”
Busse, a longtime environmental advocate and former firearms industry executive, chuckled.
“Insert laughter,” he told HuffPost. “Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve sold 3 million guns. I hunt and fish with my kids every chance I get. I don’t even know how many guns I own.”
Busse is seeking the Democratic nomination to take on first-term GOP Gov. Greg Gianforte in November. He sees Kaltschmidt’s attack as part of a GOP facade meant to distract Montana voters from the Republican Party’s extreme positions on guns, climate change, reproductive rights, taxes and more.
“These are just made-up terms to scare people,” he said. “I think a lot of Democrats just sort of go hide in the corner when they get screamed at with these overarching, pejorative names that I don’t even know what they mean. I’m not going to do it. I’m throwing the punches back. There’s nothing about me, at all, that’s radical.”
As for being painted a “radical environmentalist,” Busse posed a question: “Does that mean I want to keep our rivers clean and air clean, and not have environmental disasters that kill wildlife or kill our way of life? Guilty. Guilty.”
Busse grew up on a ranch in Kansas and moved to Kalispell, Montana, three decades ago, drawn by his passion for hunting and the outdoors. He arrived as a Republican, having had conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh “piped into” the tractor he operated on the family ranch, he said.
But his views began to shift in the early 2000s when President George W. Bush’s administration pushed to open protected public lands to oil and gas extraction, including the Badger-Two Medicine area on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. Busse said he couldn’t understand how the politicians who claimed to be for hunters, anglers and wild places could advocate for such a thing.
“Montana really changed me for the better. It made me start to think about my politics,” he said. “When some of the most sacred things I could ever find, that exceeded my expectations — these wild places — when they came under threat from the Bush-Cheney administration for industrialization, I just kind of lost my mind.”
He publicly lambasted the Bush administration energy plan — the first of several moves that ultimately caused the largely conservative firearms industry to turn on Busse, and him on them. In 2021, Busse published his book “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America,” which chronicles his personal fight against an industry that he worked in for more than 25 years.
Busse has been a proponent of Democratic Party values ever since. He volunteered and organized events for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), beginning with his successful 2006 campaign, and served as an adviser to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. But this is Busse’s first time running for public office — a bid that he says is rooted in the same values that brought him into the party more than 20 years ago.
“I’m in this to protect the Montana that so many of us love,” Busse said.
‘Two different Montanas’
Montana’s popularity has surged in recent years, thanks in part to pandemic-era migration out of urban areas, as well as the hit Western series “Yellowstone.” Since COVID-19 began to sweep the world in 2020, nearly 50,000 people have moved to the state. But Busse accuses Gianforte of pushing policies that are turning Montana into a “playground” for the ultra-wealthy, and he says the surge of rich transplants is making life harder for average working families.
“The state is sort of recoiling from this idea that rich billionaires are taking the state from them,” Busse said. He called Gianforte “the mascot for the thing that most people in the state hate.”
Gianforte, a multimillionaire businessman, made national headlines in 2017 when he body-slammed a reporter while campaigning for a U.S. House seat. As governor, he has slashed business taxes, urged corporations to set up shop in the state and described Montana as “a great product to sell.”
“Everything he does is about making another dollar, selling another house, leasing another ranch, selling another elk,” Busse said. “All of his policies, the tax policies, the way he’s dismantling services for average people... he’s making the struggle so horrible for average working folks that the only people who can afford to be here are these bajillionaires moving in.”
Gianforte’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. The governor officially launched his reelection bid last month. In his announcement, he highlighted having secured “historic income tax cuts for Montanans at every income level” and providing “the largest property tax rebate in state history.” Those rebates, however, came only after property taxes soared across the state — increases that Gianforte has blamed on counties and school districts, and that county officials have in turn blamed on the governor and the Republican-controlled legislature.
“Over the last three years, we’ve accomplished a lot together to create good-paying Montana jobs, expand opportunities for Montanans, and protect our Montana way of life,” Gianforte said in a statement at the time. “There’s still work to do, as we build on what we’ve done.”
Busse is clear-eyed about the road ahead. He doesn’t expect to just waltz into the governor’s office. Gianforte has the money to self-finance his campaign, and will likely throw millions of his own dollars toward staying in office, as he did when he ran in 2020. And Montana — historically a purple state, at least when it comes to the governor’s mansion and the congressional delegation — has turned increasingly red in recent election cycles.
Gianforte defeated former Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney (D) in 2020, flipping a governor’s office that had been in Democratic control for 16 years. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R), a former Trump administration official, won the race for Montana’s newly established congressional seat in 2022. Donald Trump won the state in 2016 and 2020 by 20 and 16 points, respectively, and Republicans hold a supermajority in the state legislature.
But Busse is inspired by the energy he’s seen from voters on the campaign trail. He says he hears every day from longtime Republican voters who are troubled with the direction Montana’s GOP has gone in recent years. It is clear to him that most Montanans are fed up with feeling like the system is rigged against them. Busse also challenges the idea that Montanans’ political views have undergone some dramatic shift to the right.
“In 2020, it was an angry, tumultuous, scary time for a lot of people — COVID, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, lockdowns. Some of the people in the state just reflexively voted ‘R,’” he said. “I think they’re shocked. I don’t think they wanted this. I don’t think they wanted women’s health care rights to be rolled back and removed from the [state] constitution. I don’t think they wanted Native Americans’ voting access to be limited, aggressively limited. I don’t think they wanted our public schools, which I think are the backbone of our democracy, to be attacked and defunded and demoralized.”
During his first term, Gianforte has signed into law a slate of anti-abortion bills and restrictive voting legislation. He’s also signed two bills to establish a separate charter school system in Montana, a move that critics warn could divert much-needed funds from public education.
Busse compared the political landscape in Montana to an Old West movie set.
“It looks like a town, but when you push on it a little bit, it falls over,” he said. “That’s what these radical Republicans have done to places like this. There’s just a few of them, but they’ve convinced everybody that they’re 85% of the population or something. They’re not. The values that I espouse are held by 85, 90% of Montanans.”
Busse sees the gubernatorial race not only as a choice between two wildly different futures for Montana, but as part of the leading edge of the fight to safeguard democracy in Western states. He has described Gianforte’s agenda as “fascism.”
“I think somebody has to stand up and say ‘No,’ and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
In his first campaign advertisement, Busse says the race is “a tale of two Montanas” and that he’s running to “obliterate” Gianforte’s agenda. The ad ends with Busse, his wife and their two sons in the woods shooting at clay targets — each one labeled with one of Gianforte’s policy positions.
When Busse’s wife, Sara, picks up a target labeled “anti-choice” and says Gianforte “wants to take away my rights to control my own body,” Busse scoffs and blasts it out of the air with a shotgun.
“Two different Montanas, and I’ll never stop fighting for ours,” he says.
The struggle is the story
Busse doesn’t like the idea of campaigning on a list of specific issues, calling it “a recipe for how to get beat by 15 points.” Instead, he’s running on larger narratives.
Last month, he took to X, the former Twitter, to share the story of a fifth-generation Montana family that’s had their way of life upended. According to Busse’s account of his interaction with the family, a rich real estate developer — who is a friend of Gianforte’s — bought up land around the family’s ranch, cut off their access to roads and water, and is now subdividing the land to make way for mansions.
“The struggle and the way the state has been changed is what the story is,” Busse said.
Busse is also fighting Gianforte on hot-button issues. He condemned Gianforte’s crusade against abortion rights as a “creepy” criminalization of health care and an invasion of personal privacy and freedom. And he denounced the GOP’s embrace of policies that allow for the open carry of firearms in public.
“This open carry thing, where people march up and down the street scaring kids with loaded AR-15s in the last three or four years, there’s nothing responsible about that,” he said. “I am convinced that 85% of Montanans are my kind of gun owner, not that kind of gun owner. And if Republicans want to say ‘That’s who we are, we’re the Kyle Rittenhouses, we’re the people who march up and down streets with ARs scaring kids at rallies’ ― go for it.”
“This idea that the industry has pushed, and that the GOP has pushed, that you can’t be a real gun owner unless you’re totally accepting of everything and never critical of anything — BS,” he added.
Fighting climate change and protecting public lands are also top priorities for Busse. He noted that Gianforte signed legislation barring state agencies from considering carbon emissions and climate effects when reviewing projects; that he supports transferring control of federal lands to states; and that he famously filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the state to block river access on his property near Bozeman. Gianforte has a long history of rejecting the science on evolution and climate change.
Busse’s teenage sons, Lander and Badge ― who are named after the town of Lander, Wyoming, and Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine area ― were among the 16 youth plaintiffs in a landmark climate case last year that centered on a unique provision in Montana’s Constitution guaranteeing citizens the right to a “clean and healthful environment.” The judge ultimately sided with the plaintiffs, who argued that state agencies violated this constitutional right by approving fossil fuel projects without considering climate effects.
Busse sat through every minute of that seven-day trial. He came to see his own children and the other plaintiffs as “true constitutional conservatives.”
“You may kind of raise your eyebrow at that, because that’s a term that the right likes to think they’ve co-opted,” he said. “How could you possibly be more constitutionally conservative than to listen to what the Framers said and stick to it? I think those kids need a great big hug for forcing us all to hold to our constitutional principles and what that constitution says. I’m proud of them. Those kids are the best of what Montana has to offer.”
While Gianforte refrained from publicly commenting on the ruling, other Montana Republicans slammed the judge as an environmental “activist” and dismissed the youth plaintiffs as “pawns” and members of a “climate cult.”
“That tells you how unhinged the Montana GOP is,” Busse said of the Republican response to the court ruling. “Not Montana voters, but this radical facade of people who have taken control over the Montana party.”