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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Analysis of Montana's Primary Election

Greater Montana Foundation; Corin Cates-Carney
Kathleen Williams (left), Matt Rosendale (right)

Voters Tuesday picked Republican state auditor Matt Rosendale to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester come November. His victory came as a big surprise to few.

Kathleen Williams' victory in the Democratic U.S. House primary on the other hand, that was an eye opener.

The former three-term state lawmaker from Bozeman eked out a two point win over John Heenan for the right to square off against Republican incumbant Greg Gianforte.

University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin says Williams ran a strong campaign despite being cash poor.

Rob Saldin: I think the big thing that a lot of experts look to, and it's held up very well over time, is they look to how much money you can raise. This is a really good proxy for the level of support you have. And by that measure, she was definitely way behind Heenan and Kier.

In some ways this probably shouldn't have been a huge surprise that it's possible to be successful in a campaign without that kind of massive fundraising apparatus, because Donald Trump didn't have that either and obviously he was successful. So money isn't everything, but traditionally it has been the best proxy that we have. That and endorsements, and by those measures Kathleen Williams was clearly a little bit behind Heenan and Kier despite what I think everybody recognizes as a very impressive campaign from where she began.

Edward O'Brien: Impressive in what way?

RS: I think she was very effective at getting her message out. And this was clear relatively early on just on social media. It was a campaign that maybe didn't have as many television commercials, but in all of the other ways she ran a pretty effective campaign.

I think you could also point to a couple of her issue positions. She seized midway through the camapign on the gun issue. This was not something that she emphasized at the beginning. In fact she was very much on the same page with all of the other candidates, but then chose to go in a different direction after some of the shootings this spring. I think that really helped her stand out.

The other thing you can point to is healthcare. She actually came out with a policy position of her own. The other candidates didn't go into as much detail.

EO: Gun control, or sensible gun reform, however one chooses to put it, that's definitely red meat stuff, in as you say, the Democratic primary. Going into the general it's going to take some finesse and a graceful pivot to express that message, yes?

RS: Yes, I mean that's the rub. What helps you win the primary isn't necessarily what helps you in the general. In fact what it takes to win the primary often might be a liability in the general.

One thing that Williams was able to do was to find something of a sweet spot between Heenan, the Sanders candidate, and Kier, the moderate candidate. The reality right now is that moderation just isn't quite where the heart and soul of the Democratic party is at.

Heenan went through the campaign with some sharp elbows. Just the way he talks about things, it was quite aggressive and so Williams was on the one hand able to distinguish herself as being much more progressive than Kier, certainly when it comes to guns, but also on healthcare without going all the way in the direction of Heenan with the strong populism. She had a little bit of a softer touch. But it was close.

EO: Ms. Williams says she plans on reaching across the aisle, a civil dialogue winning hearts and minds rather than trying to match Congressman Gianforte's substantial fundraising abilities. Is that going to be enough?

RS: Well look, she wasn't able to match Heenan and Kier's fundraising abilities either in the primary and she was able to overcome that. She'll have to do that again against Gianforte. Gianforte's going to have a lot of money. She's going to be starting in many ways from scratch going into the general election.

Looking at the results one thing that stands out is each of the top three candidates carried their home county, but not equally. Heenan ran very strongly in Yellowstone, took 57 percent of the vote. Williams likewise ran very strongly in Gallatin with 55 percent of the vote. Kier, he won in Missoula, but only with 34 percent of the vote. Williams was right behind him at 32 percent.

Williams didn't have any bad counties. She ran strong everywhere and that was definitely not the case with Heenan and Kier. Heenan only had 18 percent in Gallatin. Kier was at 12 percent in Yellowstone and 18 percent in Cascade. It's just very hard to win statewide if you're only drawing 12 percent of the votes in Yellowstone which is the biggest county.

EO: Another indication that she found that sweet spot, that Goldilocks perfect center maybe.

RS: That's right. You know one thing we haven't talked about that might be worth mentioning is there were a lot of people who voted in the Republican senate primary but did not vote for Greg Gianforte, to the tune of about 10 percent.

EO: What does that tell you?

RS: I think what Gianforte and the Republicans have to be really worried about is that people don't like Gianforte and you had a sizable number of Republicans choose to vote in the Republican senate primary and didn't fill in the oval for Greg Gianforte. And you can say well, he's running unopposed, why bother? It's a foregone conclusion he's going to be the nominee. That's true, but on the Democratic side that did not happen with Jon Tester and so I think what Gianforte would have to be concerned about is that people decided not to vote for him because there's a lack of enthusiasm there.

EO: Matt Rosendale's victory in the Republican senate primary: not much of a surprise?

RS: No, I don't think it's a surprise. He was clearly the favorite at the beginning of this thing. He didn't raise the most money but he was right behind Troy Downing and most of Downing's money came from himself so Rosendale was effective at generating money to get his message out. He also benefited a lot from outside groups who were supporting him.

I think he also went into this thing with the highest name recognition statewide. He ran for Congress in an unsuccessful effort four years ago, but since then he's ran statewide and won that seat and so of the candidates on the Republican side he definitely had the highest name recognition going in. If anything I think the surprise on the Republican side is that Russ Fagg gave him as close of a run as he did.

EO: I know a lot of ink and airtime has been spent talking about Rosendale's residency and the "all hat, no rancher" accusations. Is that going to carry?

RS: Absolutely, already I mean the Tester campaign and the Democratic party within seconds of the race being called for Rosendale released obviously prepared statements attacking him as a rich East Coast guy. That's a charge that was used very effectively against Gianforte in the governor's race by Bullock and the Russ Fagg campaign did give us a great preview of how Tester is going to run against Matt Rosendale this fall.

EO: Sounds like congress is going to be working through its August recess. If that happens that could keep Tester in D.C. off the campaign trail.

RS: Tester says he's happy about that decision to cancel the August recess. I kind of doubt that that's true. The August recess is a time that especially for senators and representatives who are appearing on the ballot in the fall has been a traditional time for them to come home and really get out there and connect with people across the state. You look at the lay of the land in the senate nationally, you have a lot of very vulnerable Democrats and I think it's not a coincidence that Republicans chose to keep Congress open because it prevents those vulnerable Democrats from going home.

So big picture this works in the macro-sense much more to the disadvantage of Democrats who are on the ballot than it does to Republicans just given which seats are up in the senate this year. Tester is just one of a number of potentially vulnerable Democrats.

EO: It hearkens back echos of 1988 when Ronald Reagan held up the Wilderness bill and John Melcher never forgave him for that.

RS: Right, and Reagan released an ad right before that election in support of Conrad Burns and very much against John Melcher based on the wilderness bill and so I think a president intervening in an election in Montana at least has the potential to be an important moment in the campaign.

EO: Well the table as they say is set for November and I suspect our glorious but all too brief summer will supplant politics for at least a few weeks and then we'll be back at it.

RS: We'll get a little break. The candidates won't. Time to raise money again.

EO: Rob Saldin, University of Montana political science professor, thank you as always.

RS: Thanks, Ed.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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