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Two Democrats Have Outspent Opponents In Montana House Primary

From left to right, Democratic Candidates John Heenan, John Meyer, Jared Pettinato, Grant Kier, Kathleen Williams
Corin Cates-Carney
From left to right, Democratic Candidates John Heenan, John Meyer, Jared Pettinato, Grant Kier, Kathleen Williams

The winner of the this campaign year’s political tug-of-war inside the Montana Democratic party will be revealed this week when primary voters decide who will represent them against incumbent Congressman Greg Gianforte

Montana Democrats bucked their national counterparts in 2016 when the state picked Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton for the party’s presidential nominee.

In a recent video ad, one of the frontrunners in the Democratic primary, Billings Attorney John Heenan marches along the path blazed by Sanders’, offering a populist message against corporate corruption.

“I’ll fight wall street to keep their hands off your social security and medicare. I’ll fight for equal pay for women. And close the corporate tax loopholes," Heenan says. 

Heenan says he’s in touch with working businesspeople because he owns a family restaurant in Yellowstone County. He’s also tapping into Montanans’ angst on the cost of healthcare by being the only Democratic candidate supporting a single-payer healthcare system.

“What I see is a broken healthcare system," he says. "It’s inefficient. The ACA (Affordable Care Act) was written by health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies on behalf of health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, so I support Medicare for all, the people of Montana and America don’t have time wait."

Heenan offers a more progressive path forward than his Democratic primary opponents, and he says he can ride the same populist wave that earned President Trump a 20-point win here in 2016.

Grant Kier, a former land trust director from Missoula, pitches Democrats a more moderate message, aiming to not completely alienate voters that handed Trump a win here. That could help him tap into Montana’s independent voters in November.

“I am not here to push anyone’s agenda but Montanans' agenda," Kier says. "Where there are places where Donald Trump’s agenda lines up with what we’re trying to do in Montana and what I think is right and what people ask me to do, I’m happy to work with him on that.”

In his most recent ad, Kier pledges his support for women voters.

“Fund Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and cancer screenings. Protect a women’s right to choose. And prevent* any insurance company from charging women more than men," Kier says.

*CORRECTION: This quote has been corrected from the origianal web post, on June 4th at 11:45pm 

Rounding out the Democrats’ top contenders is Kathleen Williams, a former state lawmaker from Bozeman.

Williams is also offering a moderate message and says it’s that kind of message that has brought Democrats success in the past.

“Someone who can hit the ground running in Congress who has policy experience I think is very valuable," Williams says. "Look at the Democrats who have been successful in Montana, Senator Tester, former state legislator, middle of the road, roll up the sleeves problem solver.”

Williams used one of her TV ads to say she’ll fight for healthcare in Congress like she has at the state level.

“We need to make sure every family has healthcare," she sayd. "As a legislator I stopped insurers from denying cancer care. In Congress we will fix healthcare and I will be the strongest champion for Medicare and Social Security that Montana has ever seen.”

Attorneys Jared Pettinato, of Whitefish, and John Meyer, of Bozeman, are also in the race but haven’t run campaigns strong enough or raked in the money needed to compete with the others.

Former state Senator Lynda Moss’ name also appears on the Democratic ballot, but she dropped out of the race in April.

All together the Democratic primary contenders have raised a little over $2 million.

Nearly half of the money in the race supports John Heenan, although he’s written his campaign a loan of $350,000.

Grant Kier has the most contributions to his campaign with a touch over $770,000 thousand. He has not been a large contributor to his own campaign.

Kathleen Williams’ campaign has less than half of what the other two frontrunners have in the bank. She’s raised more than $285,000.

The winner of the June 5th primary will face freshman Congressman Greg Gianforte.

The Democratic nominee will then attempt to do what no other Democratic has been able to do in two decades, flip Republicans control of Montana's only seat in the U.S. House.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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