Headlines From Montana's Primary Election: Experience And Money

Jun 6, 2018

Credit Montana State University, Office of University Communications

Experience and money headlined yesterday’s outcome in Montana’s primary election. Montana State University Political Scientist David Parker has this analysis of both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate contested primaries:

It was shortly before 4 on Wednesday morning when Kathleen Williams was finally declared the winner of the contested Democratic House primary. Williams and John Heenan see-sawed back and forth in vote totals as the ballot count trickled in.

Parker said Williams stood out among the crowded field not so much because of her gender, rather it was her experience and the way she talked about issues in a nuanced way. Take for example healthcare.

“She certainly didn’t come out for Medicare for all,” he said. “She had kinda a hedge, like a 55 and older plus, but notice she talked about healthcare. She talked about meaningful ways in which she moved the chains down the field in terms of healthcare.”

Parker added her style of “I know what it takes to get stuff done” and “let’s stop the silliness and get down to business” was in contrast to Heenan who’s message was that he would “fight for us.”

“And I think there’s a certain element of people being tired of that kind of fighting, combative language,” Parker said.

Williams, a former legislator from Bozeman, was the only candidate left in the race who had actual legislative experience. Former state senator Lynda Moss from Billings withdrew from the race, but not until after the ballots had already gone to the printer. Others in the Democratic primary were Grant Kier of Missoula, and Bozeman attorneys John Meyer and Jared Pettinato.

While Williams was outspend by two of her primary opponents by a nearly 2:1 margin, Parker noted Williams was strategic where she spent her limited campaign money and showed how retail politics can still work in Montana.

But Parker warned Williams will need to show she’s a serious candidate and can be competitive in the upcoming general election by raising a lot of cash. And Fast.

“She’s going to need to show a lot of bank,” he said. “She needs to show she can raise money because that’s a problem right? She didn’t raise a lot. To basically make the case to national fundraisers and the DCCC that she can make this race competitive.”

Failing to do that, Parker said, will allow Republicans to get out of the blocks fast to quickly try to define who she is before Williams can get out her message.

Parker said this race is still incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte’s to lose, but he noted there may be signs the high tech businessman is vulnerable.

“I was very intrigued by the fact 11% of voters who cast ballots in the Republican primary did not vote for Greg Gianforte,” he said, pointing to the vote totals where more voted in the Senate race but didn’t vote in the House race.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka

“That’s suggestive,” Parker said. “That’s interesting in the sense that maybe there are some Republicans voters can be picked up and basically the Kathleen Williams strategy has to be the Tester strategy: base plus plus.”

In other words, secure Democrat votes, win independents and pick up those who otherwise vote Republican.

Democrat incumbent U.S. Senator Jon Tester, who’s never won an election with over 50% of the vote, now faces off against Republican Matt Rosendale. Tester is seeking a third term this year.

Parker said Rosendale needs party unity after a bruising primary where attacks were launched at him for his relatively recent move to Montana from Maryland, running for the U.S. Senate shortly after becoming state Auditor, to his stance on the issues.

He suggested Russ Fagg, Troy Downing and Al Olszewski get up on stage with the former lawmaker from Glendive to show that unity.

“If Matt Rosendale doesn’t do that and there’s still kinda anger, there’s still kinda resentment, there’s an easy out,” he said. “Those voters either don’t show up or they just vote for Jon Tester. And Jon Tester has demonstrated he can have appeal to independent voters and voters beyond that.”

Because of that Parker was asked if this race could be a referendum on the president and the outcome will come into play over control of the U.S. Senate. Traditionally, the party in power and the president tend to take a beating in mid-term elections.

“The saving grace for Republicans, I think at the moment, is while Trump is still pretty unpopular he’s been moving up,” Parker said. “The economy is still pretty good so all those things in some respects will mean a lot of people saying, ‘I feel pretty good.’ On the flip side, ‘If I’m feeling pretty good and Jon Tester is the incumbent why would I want to get rid of him?’”

Parker predicted special interest money is going to flood this race. In the primary, outside groups poured just over $3 million in support of Rosendale. Now that he advances to the General Election and the Republican Party sees Tester as vulnerable, Parker predicts even more outside money is heading to Montana.

President Donald Trump has also targeted Tester blaming him for deep sixing his VA Secretary nominee. Trump won Montana by some 20 points in 2016.