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Government & Politics

2020 Primary Preview: Montana's U.S. House Race

The U.S. capitol building
Public Domain
The U.S. capitol building

With no incumbent seeking reelection, Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is once again up for grabs. Republicans are trying to prevent a Democrat from flipping the seat blue for the first time in more than 20 years.

Two Democrats, six Republicans and a Green Party candidate are trying to succeed current Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who is running for governor.

On the Democratic ballot, former state Rep. Kathleen Williams faces current state Rep. Tom Winter.

Williams wants health care reform that preserves Affordable Care Act protections, like Medicaid expansion and coverage for preexisting conditions. She also wants to lower the age to buy into Medicare from 65 to 55.

Williams began her three-term state House tenure on the heels of the Great Recession. She says she passed legislation that created jobs and bolstered small business loan programs. Williams says that entrepreneurial spirit would serve Montana’s economy amid the novel coronavirus.

“We need someone that can hit the ground running on these issues and more, and deliver results. And I’ve done that in the Legislature, and I’m ready to take that same approach to Congress to help Montanans and their families," Williams said.

Winter also supports health care reform. He advocates for keeping the Affordable Care Act and transitioning to a single-payer system. He says he initially ran for state office because his predecessor supported cutting Medicaid expansion.

Winter says he would try to pass legislation for working families forgotten by politicians on both sides of the aisle. He says that would involve changing the tax code to benefit the middle class.

While Republicans have long been a fixture in Montana’s House seat, in 2018 Williams came within 5 percentage points of beating Gianforte for the job. For this election, she holds a massive fundraising edge over Winter: $1.6 million versus $338,000 in primary and general campaign contributions to date.

But Winter says his current position illustrates his advantage in the House race. He won a state House seat in Missoula County that voted Republican during the 2016 general election, whereas Williams’s former district reliably votes Democrat.

“I’ve already proven to have the ability to win people over and move beyond the broken politics of the past on all these issues. And actually speak to Montanans with an authentically Montana voice regardless of party,” Winter said.

The Democratic primary winner will face whoever emerges from a crowded Republican field.

One issue that separates the Republican candidates is their stance on health care. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, rancher Joe Dooling, and youth counselor Mark McGinley have said the Affordable Care Act isn't going anywhere and they'd seek changes to it. Former state Rep. and former Montana Republican Party leader Debra Lamm, electrician John Evankovich, and state Auditor Matt Rosendale support repeal and replacement of the legislation.

Rosendale also advocates for expanding Health Savings Accounts to allow tax-exempt out-out-pocket payments.

Rosendale says he has a proven record of success as state auditor, including cutting his office’s operating costs by 23 percent. He says those skills could be put to use at the federal level.

“Fiscal sanity has got to be restored back in Washington when we’re facing a $26 trillion debt. Someone has to go in there and start looking around and saying ‘These are the areas where we need to reduce our spending.’ You want to talk about sustainable. That’s not sustainable," Rosendale said.

Stapleton wants to improve access to high-speed internet. He also says states should hold a larger role in determining how safety net benefits are distributed. Stapleton used the example of coronavirus stimulus checks.

“I didn’t ask for any money and I got a check. I didn’t deserve it and I don’t really need it. I’ll accept it. But the point is we’re trillions of dollars in debt. I wonder at a state level if you couldn’t have better formulas," Stapleton said.

Dooling says both Stapleton and Rosendale want to “jump around and run for everything under the sun." Stapleton briefly ran for governor this year before joining the House race, while Rosendale made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2018.

Dooling says one of his priorities would be holding onto a House seat that has seen significant turnover lately. Ryan Zinke held the position before Gianforte, but left during his second term to join President Donald Trump’s cabinet.

“We gotta stop turning this House seat over. This is a body where leadership and seniority and relationships matter, and we have a lot of wants, wishes, and needs from the federal government. You can’t do that if you start off as a freshman," Dooling said.

Dooling is a distant third in fundraising behind Stapleton and Rosendale, who’s leading with $1.4 million in primary and general campaign contributions to date.

Former state Rep. Debra Lamm is fourth in fundraising. She advocates for strengthening domestic food supply chains, particularly in the age of COVID-19.

“I have been concerned for years that we were allowing multinational companies to come in and have such a major role. I have been working with some local ranchers that are probably not going to have places to take cattle this fall," Lamm said.

Remaining Republican candidates Mark McGinley and John Evankovich haven’t reported any campaign donations. McGinley believes in reigning in the federal government’s power. Evankovich presents himself as a moderate candidate supporting America’s labor force.

John Gibney is also running for the House seat under the Green Party, but the party has disavowed his candidacy.