Editor’s note: This story is part of MTN’s ongoing series on contested statewide primary election races. Next up: The Republicans running for the open U.S. House seat.
In Montana’s often overlooked U.S. House contest, Kathleen Williams is the Democratic heavyweight, rolling up more campaign funds than any other candidate of either party, as she tries for a second time to win the seat she failed to capture in 2018.
But first, Williams, 59, must overcome a scrappy challenge from Tom Winter, a 33-year-old first-term state legislator from Missoula.
Winter, who formerly ran a home-health business, has pitched himself as an outspoken liberal who can appeal to rural areas of Montana – like much of the western-Missoula County district he represents in the Legislature.
“I’m the only Democrat (here) … that has won over a rural district that was won by President Trump,” he said at an online debate two weeks ago, organized by the Montana Farmers Union. “I did that by focusing on the real issues. …
“It’s not partisan to say that we take care of another out here. … It’s not partisan to acknowledge that our politics serve corporations over working people.”
Yet, in the primary, Williams and her campaign have mostly ignored her Democratic rival, instead concentrating on raising money for the fall and framing her as a thoughtful, independent voice who will concentrate on solving problems facing Montana.
“People want principled, independent (and) solution-oriented leadership in Congress,” she told MTN News.
Through March, Williams had raised $1.65 million and had more than $1.1 million remaining in her campaign account.
The winner of the June 2 primary will take on the winner of a six-person Republican primary and a Green Party candidate this fall.
Williams, a former state legislator from Bozeman, was the Democratic nominee for this seat in 2018 and lost by five percentage points to Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte. With Gianforte leaving the seat to run for governor, Montana’s sole U.S. House spot is open in 2020 – and Williams announced last April that she would try again.
A Democrat hasn’t won the seat since 1994.
Her approach in 2020 is similar to that of two years ago, as she has appealed to rural areas as well as cities and talked up what she calls common-sense solutions to overriding problems: Allowing people 55 and older to buy into Medicare to reduce health-care costs, allowing the federal government to negotiate prescription-drug prices, opposing consolidation in the meatpacking and other ag industries, pushing local food production.
Williams traveled the state extensively during her 2018 run, but the Covid-19 pandemic has grounded campaigns during the run-up to the primary.
She said that change has required her and the campaign to shift gears, offering help to Montanans.
“I’m spending a lot of time talking with Montanans making sure they’re OK and seeing what questions they have, trying to serve as a resource and advocating for things that people need,” she said. “That’s indicative of how I would serve in Congress: Service-oriented, grounded in the hopes, struggles and dreams of Montanans, and always getting ahead of things and making sure we’re forward-thinking and solving the problem.”
Winter said he’s been doing the same, in his role as state legislator, responding to problems racing his constituents, instead of campaigning.
“I have a job to do (as state legislator), and that takes precedence over everything,” he told MTN News. “The amount of fear and lack of resource I’m seeing for people in my district, it just has to be answered with something.”
Winter has raised a respectable $338,000 for his campaign, the third-highest of any candidate, Democrat or Republican, and has touted his own laundry list of policy solutions, including support for a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health system and forgiving student debt.
Yet he acknowledged that it’s been a tough climb against an established candidate – especially with the onset of the pandemic.
“When these calamities befall us, every time, it is entrenched interests who are going to benefit, if anyone does,” Winter said. “And I will not – my campaign will not. … I don’t have millions of people to call up from a prior campaign.”
Still, Winter said he’s been happy to be involved, in the campaign and helping his constituents.
“I hope people see how I’d be doing as a congressman, in my response right now,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is show: `Now we know what you look like when the chips are down. Now we know what you’re going to do as a leader for the community.”