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Independent Gary Buchanan seeks middle ground in run for Congress

Montana U.S. House District 2 candidate

Gary Buchanan smiled all evening as he warmly welcomed guests to a recent fundraising event in Helena. Friends and supporters of Buchanan giggled as former Gov. Marc Racicot stood at the front of the crowd, commenting on the sea of grey hair before him.

Racicot also introduced Buchanan as an "incredibly decent, smart and bright man" whose election to Congress would "send tremors across the country."

Buchanan is running as an independent this fall against Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale, Democrat Penny Ronning and Libertarian Sam Rankin. He said he hopes to bridge the gap between two extremes he sees in Montana's eastern congressional district.

With the left and right constantly at each other's throats, Buchanan said he sees himself as a middleman who can mediate divisive politics and challenge voters to think differently about their elected officials.

"Think independently, vote independently" is Buchanan's slogan. The 73-year-old who runs a longtime Billings-based financial advising business told listeners he has split his vote between the left and the right candidates for years and served a half dozen governors from both parties.

Born in Iowa, Buchanan moved to Montana in 1975 with his wife and two children. He spent most of his career working in finance and starting his own financial firm. But he also served as the first director of the state's Department of Commerce and helped Racicot reorganize state government in the '90s.

He's also served several state boards, including Montana's Banking Board, its Board of Investments and the Board of Crime Control. Privately, he's also served on the board of the Montana Chamber of Commerce and as chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Montana.

In 1986, Buchanan pushed for the successful passage of a ballot measure that froze property taxes on most homes and businesses in hopes that the Legislature would either cut them permanently or find other sources of revenue, such as a sales tax.

But he's never run for elective office. He said he decided to run when Rosendale voted against supporting Ukraine after Russia's invasion. That was the moment that his embarrassment became shame, he said, adding that he couldn't sit by and watch. He made the ballot by collecting 15,000 signatures in two and a half months.

His opinions sway between liberal and conservative. He said he's both pro-choice and pro-gun, for example.

Should he get elected, he said his top priority is fixing inflation. His expertise in finance, investment and banking gives him a strong knowledge of how to address that, he added.

His federal and state constitutional priorities include upholding the right to privacy and protecting public lands. "I think we have the best constitution in the country in Montana and I really worry about people attacking the right to privacy and the right to a clean and healthy environment," Buchanan said.

But he's running with no party backing. As of late September, his campaign had raised $127,125, with about two-thirds of that coming from Montanans. By comparison, Rosendale has raised $1.7 milions, with most donations coming from beyond the state.

Given the imbalance in cash, it's fair to ask if Buchanan is in the race to win or send a message. Both, he said. Although eastern Montana voters are overwhelmingly Republican, Buchanan said he believes enough moderate Republicans exist to give him a fighting chance.

He is not alone in thinking that. The Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state's largest labor union, and the Montana AFL-CIO are both backing Buchanan. His endorsements also include Dorothy Bradley, former Democratic candidate for governor and a former Bozeman legislator.

Bradley said the second she learned Buchanan was running, she called former Gov. Racicot, who narrowly defeated Bradley when they ran against each other in 1992.

"I thought if we want people to behave differently these days, maybe it should start with us. So, after all these years of being on different sides, we came together to endorse him," Bradley said.

For younger voters who may not remember Bradley and Racicot, Buchanan may not have as strong of a reach. This sentiment rang true at his fundraising event, where the majority of attendees were over the age of 50.

With a minuscule social media following compared to Rosendale's, Buchanan's campaign methods consist mostly of meeting people in person and posting signs.

He is better known among older voters, said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist and analyst from Carroll College, and his traditionalist campaign methods are meant to appeal to pre-Trump era Republicans and Democrats.

Reaching rural voters is another hurdle Buchanan faces, Johnson said. The candidate said he plans to address that by visiting rural towns across the vast district and through TV ads featuring his prominent bipartisan supporters.

The Montana Sportsman Alliance has also endorsed Buchanan, a response to Rosendale's support for repealing the federal Pittman-Robertson Act, which taxes guns and ammunition to support conservation and wildlife habitat. This could siphon millions annually from funding for conservation and public lands, upsetting many of Montana's outdoorsmen, said Buchanan.

However, the repeal's sponsors say it would replace the money with federal revenues from onshore and offshore drilling, capping that at $800 million annually.

He said Rosendale appeals only to the extreme Republican fringe to the detriment of moderate Republicans and his Democratic constituents. "Rosendale sets in with such extremes on multiple issues that he leaves an independent a hell of a lot of room to maneuver," said Buchanan.

Johnson said Democratic voters who believe Ronning has no chance of winning may back Buchanan, but he isn't sure that's enough to overcome the incumbent's advantage.

When he's campaigning, Buchanan is often asked which party he would caucus with. Neither, he tells them.

"There are a number of caucuses besides the Republican and Democratic caucuses," he said. "I will do whatever I think is best for the state."


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