Politics

Could This Be the Year Montana Sends a Democrat to the House?

Despite winning other statewide races, Democrats have struggled in at-large House district

Kathleen Williams, Democratic candidate for Montana's at-large House seat, addresses the crowd at Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., on Aug. 18. She’s running against Rep. Greg Gianforte, at center. Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman appears at right. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

CROW AGENCY, Mont. — It was an odd display. The Republican congressman dancing in a powwow with the Democrat who’s hoping to unseat him this fall.

Rep. Greg Gianforte narrowly won a closely-watched special election last year, earning negative headlines when he physically assaulted a reporter the night before.

Having won a six-way Democratic primary in June, former state Rep. Kathleen Williams is hoping to capitalize on frustration with the GOP-controlled Congress and dissatisfaction she’s heard about the congressman to defeat him in a year when the winds appear to be at Democrats’ backs.

But Montana’s not an easy place to do that. Despite electing Democrats statewide at the Senate and gubernatorial level, Montana hasn’t elected a Democrat to its at-large House seat since 1994.

It speaks to Montana’s peculiar political identity, but also to the challenges of running for an at-large seat in such a big, rural state, when the House contest has usually played second-fiddle to higher-profile statewide races. Watch: In Montana, Searching for Votes in the ‘Teepee Capital of the World’

A good fit?

Williams isn’t deterred by the odds of running against an incumbent in a state President Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016.

The Crow Tribe endorsed Gianforte during the 2017 special election. But Williams was on the reservation early on a recent Saturday morning for its 100th annual fair. The torrential rains tore at the campaign signs affixed to the camper mounted on the back of her pickup. She waded through the mud in sandals to visit different camps here — it’s known as the tepee capital of the world — and eventually settled in the gym for the grand entry.

“You’ve got to have the right candidate at the right time,” Williams said, eating an Indian taco. She acknowledged Trump’s resounding victory here, but added, “a lot of that was a default vote” from people not ready to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Democrats agree they haven’t always had the best candidates for this seat.

“The Democratic candidates for Congress — although good people and hard campaigners — did not seem to quite fit with what constituents were looking for,” said former Rep. Pat Williams, the last Democrat to represent Montana in the House, in a phone interview this week. He was re-elected to a ninth term in 1994 but did not seek re-election in 1996.

That included 2017. In one of the first special elections of the Trump presidency, folk musician Rob Quist attracted millions of dollars in small-dollar donations and kept the margin to 6 points (much narrower than the 16 points by which former Rep. Ryan Zinke won in 2016). But Quist had his own flaws Republicans were able to exploit with massive outside spending.

Before Quist, the highest percentage of the vote any Democrat received for the at-large seat in recent years was 46 percent. Nancy Keenan, now the executive director of the state Democratic Party, lost in 2000 by 6 points to Republican Denny Rehberg, who went on to hold the seat for six terms.  

The race hasn’t always attracted the strongest crop of candidates because it’s a less appealing office than some other statewide seats.

“It’s a tough office to hold,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said in an interview at Crow Fair last week. “You have to run every two years statewide and live in Washington, D.C. So a lot of people stay away from it for that reason.”

“Kathleen is a great candidate,” he added. Williams, the former congressman, agreed. He pointed to her understanding of water issues and the eastern part of the state, which he said tends to be more conservative.

“She’s the first person since I left who I truly believe is going to win,” the former congressman said.

Kathleen Williams, like Gianforte, lives in Bozeman in the central part of the state. She served three terms in the state Legislature and was previously associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance.

Kathleen Williams, Democratic candidate for Montana's at-large House seat, attends the Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., on August 18, 2018. Williams is running against Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Despite entering the race later and raising less money than her opponents, Williams won the six-way Democratic primary in June.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Even Democrats, though, admit that Williams’ call for an assault weapons ban during the primary could be problematic in Montana, where guns are seen as a cultural issue. Tester, for example, voted against an assault weapons ban in 2013 in the wake of the Newtown school shooting and opposed a measure proposed after the 2016 shooting at an Orlando nightclub that would have expanded background checks.

Williams has tried to balance that position by talking about being a gun owner and hunter. Some of her videos even show her (and her dog) in orange hunting gear. The Montana Sportsmen Alliance has backed her.

But Williams is already being attacked as any other Democrat would, especially on security issues and immigration. A recent ad from Gianforte ties her to protesters who want to abolish the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency and to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Her party advanced legislation to abolish ICE. It was only the Republican Party that stood against abolishing ICE,” Gianforte said in an interview at Crow Fair.

Williams has already said she wouldn’t back Pelosi for leader. And she’s said she doesn’t support abolishing ICE, even joking about posing for a picture with an ICE agent who was on the Crow Reservation to prove her support for the agency.

Those attacks reveal a big reason Democrats have struggled at the House level here. They have to run statewide but don’t have the resources that a Senate candidate would have to distance themselves from Republican attempts to nationalize the race.

The incumbent 

Gianforte entered the crowded gym at Crow Fair with his hands on his hips, sporting a cowboy hat and boots. From her perch on the bleachers, Williams tried to catch his eye. He didn’t make eye contact. So she put down her utensils. “This will be good,” she said, marching up to him.

Their interaction was brief, and she turned back to her seat. But they were soon reunited for the grand entry and powwow.

Wearing a long denim skirt, a “Montana Native Vote” T-shirt and shawl given to her at another powwow, Williams struck a different look from the two congressmen who marched into the hall next to her. Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, there as a guest of Gianforte’s, was sandwiched awkwardly between the two Montana rivals.

Gianforte insists none of his constituents ask him about his abuse of the reporter last year, and the misdemeanor assault charges to which he pleaded guilty.

“It’s really only the media that ask me about it,” he said.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 18: Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., waves to constituents at the Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., on August 18, 2018. Gianforte is being challenged by Democrat Kathleen Williams. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte is running for his first full term. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats say Gianforte isn’t visible in the state. Not surprisingly, the congressman disagrees about his accessibility.

“I’m proud of the fact that in my first year in office I have not spent a weekend in Washington, D.C., yet,” Gianforte said, boasting that he had events in all counties during his first 60 days in office.

His big focus of late has been legislation that would remove about 700,000 acres of land from federal wilderness study area protection. But wildlife groups and Williams have criticized the congressman for not taking enough public comment about it. 

An uphill climb

Williams thinks she’s going to win this race the same way she won the primary. She entered that contest later than most of her opponents and raised less money, but she put an emphasis on getting out everywhere across the state.

“Kathleen is doing exactly what I did — talking to people,” Keenan said, praising Williams for getting out to rural areas.

But Williams still has work to do to define herself before her opponent does. Gianforte — the second wealthiest member of Congress — ended the second quarter with $1.4 million in his campaign account compared to Williams’ $462,000. Williams is backed by EMILY’s List, End Citizens United and the Montana AFL-CIO. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not added her to its Red to Blue list for strong recruits, although there’s debate whether that designation could backfire in Montana.

The only public poll of the race so far raised some eyebrows. Williams led Gianforte 49 percent to 43 percent in the survey by Gravis Marketing, which FiveThirtyEight rates a C+ in its pollster ratings. Gravis surveyed 469 likely voters from June 11-13 via interactive voice response and cell phones, and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.

Watch: House Ratings Change in Favor of Democrats

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