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Ryan Busse's loud, exasperated run for governor
Plus: Rap tracks from Missoula's Foreshadow x elair, and an interview with screenwriter W.A.W Parker
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On September 14, Ryan Busse announced his run for governor with a splashy, two-minute video that largely sums up the tenor of his campaign: an embrace of his outdoorsy bona fides, an emphasis on populist-minded economics and a healthy dose of snark. In one scene, Busse shoots clay pigeons with policies attributed to Republican Governor Greg Gianforte emblazoned on them. In another, Busse and his wife, Sara, go to the airport and debate whether a private jet on the tarmac is big enough to belong to Gianforte. The video has been viewed more than a million times on Twitter alone.
A former firearms executive and advisor to Joe Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign, Busse’s run for governor hinges on his belief that both a substantial amount of right-leaning voters, as well as Montanans who did not vote in 2020, share his exasperation and anger with the Gianforte Administration. These voters, Busse hopes, will put aside their negative associations with the Democratic Party to prioritize what he argues are the GOP’s detrimental effects on Montanans—a stiff property tax hike and the recent 28% utilities rate hike chief among them—and help elect him next November.
I caught up with Busse on a recent, blustery morning at the Missoula Public Library for a wide-ranging and frank conversation about his campaign. Read on as Busse explains his strategy for winning over voters outside of the Democratic base, offers fiery criticisms of Governor Gianforte, trashes Republicans for not condemning Nazis and explains why he thinks Democrats often pull their punches.
Ryan Busse: I think it's important to pierce that bubble. Aaron makes his living—like other news outlets on the right do—by ginning up controversy a lot of times where there is none, and then spinning it out to his audience. It’s basically a verbal form of clickbait.
I thought it was important for me to be there face to face with him, to let him know, first, that I'm not this boogeyman Democrat that he's been warning everybody about. He seems to act like all Democrats are afraid to come on his show. I'm not afraid to go on his show. I'm not embarrassed about my stances.
I didn't have illusions that I would somehow convert him from his well-rehearsed talking points; generally speaking, no measure of fact will dissuade him from those.
What's an example of an issue where you think there’s a gulf between how Aaron Flint portrays you, versus the reality?
In some ways, I think there is no gulf with his listenership and me, but he tells them there is a huge gulf. Do I think that his listenership is okay with the party that he basically cheerleads for turning this place into a playground for billionaires, limiting healthcare rights for women, gutting public schools? No, I don't think they're okay with that. But he doesn't tell them that's what [the GOP is] doing.
He runs this deflection game for the Republicans, telling his listeners that the Republicans are in it for the little guy. It's just a bunch of bunk. They're rigging the state for billionaires like Gianforte.
This tax thing, dude: we start with a $2.8 billion surplus. The legislature and Gianforte have enough time to make sure that Northwestern Energy, which reported $183 million in profits in 2022, got a big tax break.1 But they didn't have time to fix the walloping tax increase that was coming down on renters and on homeowners.
Then, to double up and make matters way worse, a GOP-controlled Public Service Commission, cheered by Gianforte, is [also] giving us a 28% rate increase in Northwestern Energy.2
There's a lot of stuff that Aaron says and does that is wrong and detestable, but people still listen to him. We still have to go there and message.
I think Dems have lost some battles and some elections because our actions don't match our rhetoric. Voters see that. If I say the state is at a precipice, I better be willing to go on Fox News and Aaron Flint to defend it. If not, voters should rightfully say, well, I guess he really doesn't believe that.
Missoula is not necessarily representative of all of Montana. But there are a lot of really disaffected progressive folks here.
There are, yeah.
What’s the most effective way to connect with that constituency?
I think one thing progressive folks and Democratic folks should get their heads around—I've had to, and I think it's powerful—is that no measure of being right matters in politics if you don't win elections. So our number one goal should be supporting a candidate that can win an election.
If I want to inspire voters who are disaffected and they care about issues and values, then I need to champion them. I'm worried that too many Democrats run an apologetic campaign. I don't see how that's gonna work.
What do you mean by “apologetic?”
If we are about fair taxes, then get out and fight for fair taxes. Say what's wrong, identify the villains. Say what you're gonna do to fix it. Say that the system is rigged for the wealthy. Say it, and mean it. I think too often Democrats just don't want to lean in and throw those punches. If we did that, we'd be shocked at how the polls might change.
Why do you think that's the case? Is it a fear of being seen as radical?
We're sort of buying the press line that the Republicans are putting on us, [that we’re] radical. It's not radical to want fair taxes. It's not radical to stand up for public education. It's not radical to think that libraries are a decent idea. None of that stuff's radical. I don't care that the Republicans say it's radical; I'm not gonna crawl in a hole. That loud 10% of the radical Republican base that loves to shout people down, like Aaron Flint, they win by keeping Democrats quiet or having Democrats soften their message. I'm not down with that.
Do you think [former Governor] Brian Schweitzer embodies that vocal approach?
I do. The dude wins, right? He knows how to communicate to people. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to lay out and communicate on values. Even if you don't agree with him on some particular policy, I bet you agree with him on 80, 85 or 90% of policies. And newsflash, he knows how to win an election. Yes, I think Democrats need to get back to that.
Do you see your campaign focused on flipping Gianforte voters, or reaching folks who haven’t been voting, period?
Both. I don't buy this idea that disaffected progressives or young people won't vote. We have to convince them of what the stakes are, and the stakes are frickin’ high, man: women's healthcare, a fair tax system, what our public schools are gonna be like. We have to fully fund those schools. The kids deserve it. The towns deserve it.
We're in an existential crisis. If we lay out what's at stake, I think we can get people to the polls.
I also think there's a bunch of moderate libertarian-type Montanans who, in a sort of fit in 2020—when we had so much social angst and COVID and lockdowns—said “screw it” and they pushed the “R” button for Gianforte.
But I don't think Gianforte's values are their values. I think there's a lot of those people we can get back.
They may have thought they were getting some Republican Party of 30 years ago or something. They're not. They got this radicalized, democracy-threatening, hatred filled supermajority. I don't think it's representative of anything that I hold dear about Montana.
What’s the best way to message to those voters, specifically?
I think the property tax thing is really important. I generally kind of hate campaigning on issues. I think Democrats do too much of that, instead of campaigning on values. But the property tax thing is a really illustrative issue that demonstrates the Republican Party's larger values.
Republicans could have fixed this tax thing and Republicans didn't do it. It's a hundred percent on them. We have a Republican governor who is suing the county commissioners so he can raise your property taxes.
I never thought I would read that headline. It's tough for that not to illustrate the fact that they're rigging the system for the wealthy and screwing the common people in Montana.
I'm a little skeptical that that specific voter bloc could shake off their associations with the Democratic Party, despite the evidence you’re bringing up.
The reason people like Aaron Flint and Fox News are so important to the Republican Party is that they have to keep ever-inflating the frightening nature of this boogeyman Democrat. For that voter bloc to not get over the tax thing and hate Democrats more, they have to be told that Democrats eat babies or whatever goofy thing they're gonna come up with next.
I think Republicans are pretty good at setting these very evil and dangerous culture war traps. And sometimes we're a little too good at stepping in 'em.
I saw that you served as an advisor for Biden’s 2020 campaign. What was that experience like for you?
I served on an advisory committee for hunters and anglers. I don't mean to be terribly pejorative, but I think that sort of coastal Democratic mindset—much of which controlled the Biden campaign, who were all smart people, all good people—I found to be lacking in understanding about flyover Democrats. I tried to explain the way gun ownership, for instance, which I've been deep inside of, should be messaged. And how not all gun owners are bad. And that there's lots and lots of Democrats in Montana that own guns. And to be careful about the way you lump groups in, especially in places like Montana or other flyover states. And to be honest, I wasn't met with the sort of embrace and understanding I would've liked to see.
I think the odds are pretty high that the legislature will stay GOP controlled in 2024. If elected governor, how would you work with those guys?
Well, there'd be a lot of vetoes, man. I do think, though, there's a place for a Democratic governor with a strong constituency to make advancements with the legislature. Does that mean I'm gonna get a hundred things done? No, but I think there's room there.
Man, they're like kids in a candy store now. There's no controlling them.
Are there any GOP folks in the legislature that you see as good potential partners?
There are a few, but I don't want to name any of them. In this horrible political system that they work in, that's probably a kiss of death.
There are some current and former Republican leaders who I know who aren't crazy. I think a good strong Democratic governor might give them a little courage.
You recently criticized Governor Gianforte for his lack of public response to an individual firing a shotgun into the front of the Planned Parenthood building in Helena. What’s the significance of his response to you?
I noticed he was silent after the Nazis were here in Missoula the other day. That silence is condoning. How fucking hard is it to slam Nazis? Come on. It's a low bar.
Condemning Nazis should be pretty easy. And none of them can do it. They can't find three seconds. They can tweet about everything under the sun. They can have press conferences. But they can't say, “Hey, Nazis aren't welcome here.” I believe that they believe that's their base of support.
They're not being silent about it. They're supporting it. Their silence creates more of it. It's licensing hate in our schools and our communities. And it's terrible.
I tell you this, if I'm elected governor, it will not be hard for me to condemn Nazis. I never thought I would have to cover that lowest bar, but that is a promise I can make.
What’s something Governor Gianforte has done that you either support, or were pleasantly surprised by?
I don't know all the intelligence behind the TikTok thing. I think there could be a legitimate Chinese security threat with the way that metadata is shared with the Chinese communist government. Taking the Chinese metadata threat seriously, that I think he and I probably agree on.
I’ve spoken to folks who are happy with the current outcome of the Held v. Montana case, but nonetheless have some wariness of your sons being plaintiffs in the case, while you’re running for governor. How do you respond to that apprehension?
I'm very proud of my sons and all of those fourteen other kids. I sat through that trial and obviously saw my kids go through the two-and-a-half, three year process of being in that trial. Those kids, I think, represent some of the best Montana has to offer. They stood up for a constitutional right that's clearly enumerated in the Montana constitution.
I hear that people are worried about the political ramifications of it. I don't know why dealing with reality would or should be a political liability.
I look at what we have coming down the pike with regards to climate, sort of like a farmer dealing with a really bad forecasted drought. We can wish it away. We can keep doing the same things. We can plant the same crops. But pretending that the drought's not coming ain't gonna save our crops.
The Held case says, let's just start dealing with reality. The drought's coming. Let's figure out what we gotta do. Montana can be a leader there. Somebody's gotta lead.
A lot of my fiancé’s family live in Miles City. They’re pretty conservative, but also open-minded. What’s your pitch to folks in that part of the state?
Who thinks it's okay that these huge corporate interests are ruling our lives and our economy, or buying all of our ranches or screwing with our tax rates, right? The battle is the same all across Montana. We can be diverted and distracted by all these culture war traps while these big corporations keep making our lives harder and taking the Montana that we love and rototilling it, or we can dispense with the culture war traps and get on about fixing some of this stuff.
We could probably get distracted for weeks arguing about culture war stuff, but to what end? We don't need to argue about that. Let's worry about the stuff that is ruined in our state. That would be my pitch.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing (or two)…
I recently put together this list of my favorite tracks from the Missoula-area hip-hop duo Foreshadow x elair, spanning impassioned community advocacy, summertime anthems and some jams so unserious they make Migos sound like James Joyce. You can check it out here, via The Pulp.
It was a pleasure to chat with the Northern Cheyenne novelist and screenwriter W.A.W. Parker about his new Disney+ short film “The Roof,” a semi-autobiographical account of a Two-Spirit teenager exploring their own identity and family history. You can read the interview here, via Montana Free Press.
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.
I couldn’t find evidence that NWE received a tax break in 2022, and reached out to the Busse campaign for comment. Spokesperson Aaron Murphy acknowledged that he couldn’t cite a specific number, but flagged several op-eds and newspaper stories that describe, in general terms, tax cuts for corporations passed by the GOP during the 2023 Legislature.
I also couldn’t find evidence of the governor “cheering on” the rate hike. Murphy told me that “Gianforte hasn’t said anything to his constituents, us ratepayers, about the pain caused by an all-Republican PSC, or that he plans to do anything about it. It’s fair to suggest his silence and inaction conveys support of higher rates by members of his own party.”