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Gianforte, Williams Square Off in Heated U.S. House Race

A Democrat has not held Montana’s at-large seat in 24 years

As the race tightens for Montana’s at-large seat on the U.S. House of Representatives, the long odds of a Democrat winning in the upcoming midterm election have emerged as a prominent topic of debate as the party’s nominee, Kathleen Williams, continues to keep pace with Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte.

Criss-crossing the Treasure State with her German Wirehaired Pointer Danni in tow, Williams is seeking to accomplish what no Democrat has done in 24 years, and what no woman has in 77 years — to serve as Montana’s lone representative in Congress. Although Montana sent the first woman in the United States to Congress, it hasn’t sent another since Jeannette Rankin began her second congressional term in 1941.

And yet, here’s Williams, traveling the sprawling state and meeting candidates with a dizzying metabolism while matching her opponent’s fundraising acumen — she has raised $2 million in the past three months — and joining the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s rarefied roster of top-tier candidates featured on the organization’s “Red to Blue” list, which only 18 percent of the party’s candidates end up on.

Still, the race promises to be competitive, as Gianforte, 57, the technology entrepreneur who sold his software company to Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion, runs in his third statewide election in two years, starting with a failed campaign for governor against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock in 2016.

Gianforte went on to win a special congressional election in 2017 to fill the vacancy that opened when former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke resigned to become President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, and is polling well in a state that Republican President Donald Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.

He pointed to a productive first year as a member of Congress as proof that he has the best interest of Montanans at the top of the list of his priorities.

“I’m running on my record. Consumer confidence is up, regulations have been rolled back and Montana is better off under the Trump administration,” he said.

Williams, 57, served three terms in the Montana House of Representatives from 2011-2015. Prior to her decision to challenge Gianforte, she was associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance, and said her decision to run for national office was prompted by the sudden death of her husband two years ago.

Describing herself as a “bridge builder,” Williams said her frustration with gridlock in Washington, D.C. had been mounting when she harnessed her grief from the loss of her husband and her exasperation with federal lawmakers into an energetic bid for office.

“I really started to realize that’s where I needed to focus my energy — at the national level,” Williams said in an interview with the Beacon. “A lot of Montanans are frustrated with the lack of civility in Washington, and I think I can help.”

A third candidate will also appear on the ballot. Libertarian Elinor Swanson, 36, is an attorney from Billings making her first run for political office, though she is currently polling in the single digits.

In two separate debates, Williams and Gianforte have used the platform to lay out their priorities, define their differences and clash over issues like health care, gun control and public lands. Gianforte has repeatedly drawn comparisons between Williams and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a well-worn target for Republicans bashing the Democratic party, even as Williams criticizes Pelosi as epitomizing the brand of hyper-partisan gridlock she intends to dilute if elected, going so far as to air an ad pledging to support new leadership.

Williams said her 34-year career working on natural resource and land policy issues gives her a unique perspective on what’s best for the ecology and economy of Montana, while her expertise in shared-use policies furnishes her with a forward-thinking view on water rights, public access and sustainability.

“People ask me if I’m a progressive or a moderate and I always say ‘Yes’,” she said. “My background is unique for someone with a ‘D’ next to her name.”

Williams said health care has been by far the most frequent topic of concern as she meets with constituents from all corners of the state, and she has advocated for Medicare buy-ins for people over the age of 55. As the sponsor of a revised statewide cottage food law in 2015, which streamlined complicated regulations that burdened small-scale food processing, Williams said her record as a lawmaker shows that she is a champion for small business owners.

“That bill helped create 170 new businesses,” she said, noting that Flathead County is home to 17 of them.

For his part, Gianforte said he’s been a strong and consistent voice for Montana, and as chairman of the Interior, Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is in a unique position to influence issues like federal permitting for energy, timber, grazing, and recreation.

Gianforte said his rapport with President Trump gives him an advantage in a Republican administration hostile to Democrats, which gives him a better rate of success passing measures that affect his constituents.

He also pointed to low unemployment rates and wage increases, and said the tax bill passed in late 2017 favored families by doubling the standard deduction and child tax credit.

“That’s the whole goal — to make the American dream more attainable for working-class residents,” Gianforte said. “And I’m enjoying the work.”

The general election to determine the House race will be held on Nov. 6.