HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence rallied fellow Republicans in Montana Friday night in support of God, guns and Greg Gianforte, the GOP candidate vying for the state's only seat in the U.S. House.
During a rally to draw voters to the polls for a May 25 special election, Pence avoided any deep policy pronouncements or any mention of the tumult buffeting the administration of President Donald Trump.
The vice president urged Gianforte forces to spread out into the expansive state to help recruit other supporters for Gianforte, who faces Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks in a high-stakes election that is drawing attention — and big money — from across the nation.
Pence implored the crowd of several hundred at the Metrapark pavilion in Billings to help elect Gianforte, who he said would be an ally to the Trump administration.
"With your help, with your support, President Trump and I are confident that Montana will make the right choice on May the 25th when we send Greg Gianforte to Washington, D.C.," said Pence, who mispronounced the Bozeman Republican's name numerous times during his speech.
Pence repeatedly invoked religion and the NRA in his speech, and asked attendees to pray for a Gianforte victory.
Earlier in the day, he rode on horseback while touring the Westmoreland Coal Company's Absaloka Mine on the Crow Indian Reservation east of Billings. He also met with tribal and business leaders.
The future of the state's coal industry is a hot-button issue in Montana because of the jobs and millions of dollars it contributes to the state's economy. But environmentalists also see the industry as a relic, as they push to develop solar and wind energy and reduce reliance on carbon-based fuels.
Montana Republicans and Crow tribal leaders welcomed Trump's action earlier this year when he reversed his predecessor's 2016 moratorium on the sale of new coal leases on federal lands.
Pence called "the war on coal" over.
"I just want to assure you that this administration is absolutely determined to continue to expand the opportunities to develop American energy in an environmentally responsible way," Pence was quoted as saying in the Billings Gazette.
The Interior Department administers 306 coal leases across 10 states, producing more than 4 billion tons of coal over the past decade. About 85 percent came from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
Pence is expected to remain in Montana until Sunday. His office said the vice president has no public events scheduled for Saturday, but Pence said he might dip his feet into a river and do some fishing before returning to the nation's capital.
The Friday event also drew dozens of protesters, who held signs on the grounds of the MetraPark and along nearby streets.
Earlier in the evening, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urged his fellow Montanans to help the president drain the "swamp" in Washington by electing more Republicans like Gianforte, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year.
Montana's sole congressional seat has been empty since Zinke's resignation from the U.S. House earlier this year to join the Trump administration.
The vice president's visit was the latest sign of the Republican Party's angst over a House seat it has held for two decades.
Big money has poured into the race, and television airwaves are saturated with political ads. As the campaign sprints to a close, both Gianforte and Quist are flying in powerhouse surrogates to help drive voters to cast ballots.
In addition to Pence, Gianforte has received help from Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, who barnstormed the state for the Bozeman Republican on Thursday — the second time he has done so in recent weeks.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won Montana during last year's Democratic primary, will arrive next week to give Quist a boost. He will make appearances May 20 in Missoula, Butte and Billings, as well as in Bozeman the following day.