Anti-Choice Funder Running for Congress in Montana Special Election

The May 25 election will not tip the party balance of the U.S. House of Representatives, but it is a chance for Montana residents to have their voice heard amid a starkly divided Congress.

Greg Gianforte is seeking to add U.S. Congressman for the State of Montana to his resume. Greg Gianforte / YouTube

His family foundation funded a creationist museum teaching that dinosaurs and humans once co-existed, and has donated over half a million dollars to clinics that lie to women about abortion. He ran for but lost a 2016 race to become governor of Montana. And now, Greg Gianforte is seeking to add U.S. Congressman for the State of Montana to his resume.

Republicans in Montana last week selected Gianforte as their nominee to replace Republican Ryan Zinke—recently confirmed as Trump’s interior secretary—in a May 25th special election to fill the state’s sole seat in the House of Representatives.

Zinke’s vacated House seat is rated as “solid Republican” by Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales/Roll Call 2018 election ratings, though Democrats made a “serious effort” to contest the seat in 2016 according to Roll Call. The election will not affect the balance of power in the House, but is nonetheless a chance for Montana residents to have their voice heard amid a starkly divided Congress considering issues that will directly affect their lives, such as health-care reform and whether Planned Parenthood will continue to receive federal funding through Medicaid.

Montana has both a Republican and a Democratic senator in Congress, but Republicans hold majorities in the state’s house and senate. In November, Donald Trump won the state with 55.6 percent of the vote, though Gianforte lost the gubernatorial race to Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who received 50.2 percent of votes.

During that race, Gianforte spoke “little about his social stances, insisting that his campaign is focused on economic development,” according to a report from March of that year in the Billings Gazette. But the Gazette also found that Gianforte’s family foundation invested millions of dollars in conservative causes during a nine-year period.

The foundation donated over $1.7 million between 2004 and 2013 to organizations the newspaper categorized as “family, women’s health or anti-abortion” groups. Another $138,500 went to “conservative advocacy” groups, including groups backed by the conservative Koch brothers and organizations promoting so-called religious freedoms.

Speaking to the Gazette last year about the foundation’s giving, Gianforte suggested that the donations were irrelevant to his gubernatorial campaign. Campaign spokesperson Aaron Flint added that it was “flawed, if not outright inappropriate,” to ask how the candidate’s policy views could be seen in light of the organizations his family has funded.

While in the Gazette piece Flint framed the donations as the family simply having “given to charities,” in truth many of the organizations funded through the foundation promote ultra-conservative stances. A Rewire review of the Gianforte Family Foundation’s charitable giving between 2005 and 2014 using 990 tax forms available online through the Gazette and GuideStar, for example, revealed years of donations for “charitable purposes” to organizations that oppose abortion and LGBTQ equality.

During that time period, the foundation gave more than $1.6 million to anti-choice organizations, including Focus on the Family, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council (categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), Students for Life of America, 40 Days for Life, the Heritage Foundation, and the Montana Family Institute.

The Gianforte Family Foundation specifically mentioned the family’s commitment to funding anti-choice organizations on its website prior to a recent redesign. “Foundation grants focus on improving education, lifting people out of poverty, protecting the unborn, and Christian outreach, as well as enhancing the family’s hometown community of Bozeman, Montana,” said the site in its previous version [emphasis added]. That description has since been scrubbed from the foundation’s web page.

Many of these same organizations are also supporters of religious imposition laws, which, as Rewire has previously reported, “cover a range of legislation designed to shield private individuals and businesses from complying with nondiscrimination laws and to affirmatively deny services such as employment, housing, and reproductive health care based on a religious objection to that service.”

The aforementioned Montana Family Institute is one of those organizations. The Gianforte Family Foundation says it gave the institute, a 501(c)(3) that does “education, networking, and research,” $106,000 in 2014 and $155,500 in 2013. The Montana Family Foundation, the 501(c)(4) arm of the institute that engages in “education, lobbying, and limited political activity,” received over $637,000 between 2004 and 2012 from the Gianforte Family Foundation, according to tax filings.

The Montana Family Foundation’s website says that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” that life begins at conception—language in line with the “personhood movement”—and offers a defense of so-called religious freedom bills. The Gianforte family reportedly severed ties with the Montana Family Foundation in 2016 in the midst of Gianforte’s campaign, though his wife had previously sat on the organization’s board.

Gianforte has even personally lobbied around religious imposition issues, and in 2014 “was on the front line pushing against an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance in his hometown of Bozeman,” according to a January 2016 report from BuzzFeed News’ Dominic Holden. When the city was considering a nondiscrimination ordinance, Gianforte wrote in an email to the city commissioners and mayor that, “Homosexual advocates try to argue that businesses are leery of locating in towns that aren’t friendly to homosexuals. I believe the opposite is truer.”

According to Holden’s report, Gianforte worked with Alliance Defending Freedom—a group his family foundation has donated to—“to propose language that would give religious businesses or organizations a defense if they discriminated in employment and public accommodations due to their faith. Mayor Taylor said that Gianforte was the only activist to provide unsolicited legislation and amendments on the nondiscrimination ordinance.”

Nearly $700,000 in additional charitable donations were made by the Gianforte Family Foundation to what are seemingly fake clinics commonly referred to as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). A 2012 investigation into CPCs in the state conducted by NARAL Pro-Choice Montana found that 89 percent of CPCs there “present inaccurate information about birth control and other contraceptives.” When it comes to biased and inaccurate information about abortion, 78 percent gave false information about psychological damage, and 67 percent falsely linked abortion to breast cancer.

The Susan B. Anthony List described Gianforte as a “longtime supporter of pregnancy resource centers” and a “pro-life advocate” when the anti-choice organization endorsed him during his run for Montana governor in 2016.

Though it wasn’t an issue central to his campaign, Gianforte did speak about his opposition to reproductive freedom during his run for governor. When questioned about his stance on reproductive health and rights, including Planned Parenthood, Gianforte said that he had not “put any specific proposals out” on that matter, but added that “I am pro-life, I want to be clear about that. I will defend life here in this state.”

When asked during an October 2016 gubernatorial debate about whether he supported “tougher restrictions on abortion laws” in Montana and whether he would defund Planned Parenthood, Gianforte didn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he said that he supported “having medical care for women in the state,” reiterated his general anti-choice views, and touted his financial support of what he called “women’s medical clinics,” seemingly referring to CPCs. When pressed to discuss his view on Planned Parenthood, he claimed he had “not said anything about Planned Parenthood” and had “no particular plans” on the matter.

Speaking to MTN News just over a week before the November 2016 elections, Gianforte more specifically claimed that when it came to reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality he doesn’t “have any particular agenda around these things.” However, he again vowed that he would “defend life, because I think we need a culture of life.” He refused to get into specifics about his position on abortion, including whether he would support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, other than to say that life “should be protected.”

While Gianforte has tried to sidestep questions about reproductive rights, his Democratic opponent Rob Quist has thus far been direct about his support of reproductive freedoms. Tina Olechowski, a spokesperson for the Quist campaign, told Rewire by email that “Rob Quist believes women should have the right and freedom to make their own health care decisions without any government intrusion and is against defunding Planned Parenthood that provides vital health care services to thousands of Montana women.”

Gianforte’s campaign did not respond to Rewire by publication time.

Nik Griffith, interim executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana said in a Tuesday interview with Rewire that Gianforte’s election “would mean a rollback of the protections that exist in the State of Montana for our women and families when accessing abortion and reproductive rights.” He added that the group was aware that “it would be a priority” for Gianforte and his allies to “make sure that women couldn’t access abortion” should he win his race.

“We’ve already rejected him once as governor, and now we’re going to reject him again in the House,” said Griffith.

Laura Terrill, vice president of External Affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana PAC, told Rewire by email that “Greg Gianforte is a perennial candidate trying to buy himself a seat in public office who is dangerous for women.” She noted that during his gubernatorial run, her organization repeatedly asked him about whether he would allow Planned Parenthood to be defunded and that he “first evasively refused to answer the question directly and subsequently dodged several follow-up attempts.”

“He did not directly answer a simple direct question of high interest to the people of Montana,” she said. “In contrast, Mr Quist, the Democratic nominee whose endorsement from Planned Parenthood Action Fund is pending, has made clear he will stand with women and protect access to the full range of reproductive options including abortion.”

“Planned Parenthood health centers in the Treasure State serve more than 14,000 patients a year,” Terrill continued. “PPAMT believes these women and men, these Montanans, deserve to know whether their health care provider is in jeopardy of being defunded. The question is even more relevant now because the ‘de-funding’ of Planned Parenthood has become the weapon of choice for the new Congress who seeks to limit Montanans from going to a provider of their choice, limit access to birth control and life saving cancer screenings for women nationally and in the states.”