There are seven Democrats representing a wide swath of Montana vying to become the first candidate from their party to claim the state’s sole U.S. House of Representatives seat since Pat Williams won his ninth and final term in 1994.
With such a crowded field bringing a diverse range of backgrounds and splitting the vote seven ways, and no single frontrunner having yet emerged, the June 5 primary is shaping up to be a competitive and unpredictable battle.
The House seat is being vacated by Republican Denny Rehberg, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in the U.S. Senate race. The winner of the crowded Democratic primary would likely face presumptive Republican nominee Steve Daines, a Bozeman businessman, and Libertarian candidate David Kaiser of Victor in the November general election.
Montana’s congressional seat encompasses the largest district in terms of population in the country and also the largest congressional district in terms of size in the lower 48 states, trailing only Alaska’s at-large district in size nationwide.
The two money leaders in the Democratic House primary are Bozeman state Rep. Franke Wilmer, a political science professor at Montana State University, and Billings state Sen. Kim Gillan, a workforce development and training coordinator at Montana State University Billings.
Gillan and Wilmer each raised around $70,000 during the last reporting period, giving Gillan about $116,000 in her bank account and Wilmer $90,000, according to the most recent campaign reports released in April.
Diane Smith, a political newcomer and entrepreneur from Whitefish, has roughly $68,000 in cash on hand, while Dave Strohmaier, a city councilor and professional historian from Missoula, is next with about $14,000 in cash on hand.
Rob Stutz, an attorney from Helena, is refusing to accept money from political action committees and has a little over $3,000 in the bank.
Jason Ward, a Hardin farmer and construction manager for the Crow Tribe, and Sam Rankin, a real estate broker from Billings, are running low-profile campaigns and have also raised limited amounts of funds so far. Ward hasn’t filed a report with the Federal Election Commission while Rankin has about $5,000 in cash on hand.
Daines, 49, has more than $700,000 in his campaign bank account.
In an interview over the weekend, Gillan said she doesn’t “want to overemphasize the money part,” since ultimately “Montanans demand retail politics,” which means pounding the pavement and meeting as many people as possible before the primary.
Gillan, 60, is touting her track record in policymaking and “practical problem solving” in both her legislative and professional careers. In her 16 years in the state Legislature, Gillan said she has passed complex legislation, including an autism insurance mandate in a Republican-led Legislature.
Gillan said she can use that legislative experience, along with her workforce development background, to create good-paying jobs, find practical ways to protect Social Security and Medicare and achieve her other top priorities if elected. She also notes she has assumed a number of leadership positions in her public service career.
“During my 16 years in the Legislature, I actually got things done,” she said. “I passed some incredibly complex and important bills.”
Wilmer, 61, says her combination of life experience, public service and professional service distinguishes her from her opponents.
As a divorced single mother beginning in her early 20s, Wilmer worked a variety of jobs – from waitress to carpenter – for 16 years to put herself through college and earn a master’s degree. She then earned a Ph.D. in government and politics from the University of Maryland.
“I had never thought about that as a qualification for Congress,” Wilmer said of her hard path to a college degree, “but it’s actually probably the most important one.”
Wilmer said her track record from her three terms in the Legislature proves she can work with both sides of aisle. If elected, she said she would focus on bringing more high-tech jobs to Montana, encouraging links between the state’s research universities and private investment.
Wilmer believes her international relations experience, which includes visiting more than 50 countries through research or as an invited speaker, is relevant for solving foreign policy issues in Congress.
While Stutz’s fundraising numbers are low due to his principled refusal of PAC dollars, he has made his presence known through a strong social media presence and by attending events and forums across the state.
Stutz, 39, said last week that his stand against PAC money demonstrates he is serious about limiting the influence of special interests in politics, which is something he believes appeals to Montanans.
“Congress needs to work for the best interest of the people they represent,” Stutz said. “They’re not there to just represent people with money and corporations.”
Stutz is actively framing his campaign as a challenge against Daines, presenting himself as the candidate best suited to take on the Republican. He cites his experience as an assistant state attorney general, the Legislature’s chief legal counsel at the last session and his summers spent working at U.S. embassies overseas during college.
His top priorities include bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and reforming national education policy.
Smith, 52, is touting her business acumen, citing her track record as an entrepreneur. She was formerly a technology corporate executive in Washington D.C. and then helped found an advanced media services company in Kalispell.
Smith, an attorney who has penned a book on the role of technology in rural economic development, said she stands out among the other candidates because she has brought jobs and investment to Montana and has a jobs plan on her website.
Among her top priorities is revitalizing the middle class, particularly through public education and “smart investments” in research and development. She also says she has a “vision for 21st century government,” a vision that involves streamlining government in part by better utilizing technology like the Internet.
“Government should take the long view; it shouldn’t confuse it with taking a long time,” Smith said. “The rest of us live in Internet time.”
Strohmaier said he’s the only candidate with experience working in local government, which he calls “the first line of defense.” He disputes the idea that the best path to Congress is through the Legislature.
“We’ve been there, done that,” Strohmaier said over the weekend. “I don’t think that’s the ticket to success.”
Strohmaier, 47, says he is a lifelong conservationist, hunter and fisherman. Also, he spent 18 years working for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, fighting fires for most of those years, which he said gives him a firm understanding of land management, wildfire management and emergency services.
He says he is a staunch advocate of fairness, which means closing up tax loopholes for corporations and millionaires, making everybody pay their fair share and establishing that corporations are not people and “money is not speech.”
Ward, 34, is running as a common-man candidate who is seeking to represent the working class. He has called for simplifying the tax code and ending unaccountable bureaucracies. Ward has also argued that free trade has cost the country millions of manufacturing jobs and he calls for a level playing field.
“We need a protective tariff to compensate for irresponsible damage done to the environment and the unfair labor practices of foreign businesses,” Ward says on his website.
Rankin, 67, is running for Congress for the second consecutive time, again taking a stand against the influence of money in political campaigns. Rankin, who served as a combat medic in the Vietnam War, says on his website that “candidates who rely on special interest money to win elections can never be trusted to govern fairly.”
“The only way to destroy big money’s grip on government is to elect politicians who reject money as a means of winning elections,” Rankin says.
With a month remaining until voters decide which Democrat is best suited to move on to the general election, expect to see the candidates crisscrossing the state and spreading their message as much as possible.
Wilmer likely speaks for the other candidates when she says her immediate future will be characterized by a lot of “views from the window and rubber on the road.”
RELATED: Poll: Tester Surges Ahead of Rehberg; Gillan Leads House Democratic Primary
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.