Montana Public Radio

Democratic House Candidates Adopt Posture Of Composed Vagueness

Mar 23, 2018

Montana Democrats are trying to decide who will be their party's nominee to challenge Greg Gianforte for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House.

That'll be a big challenge for the five candidates campaigning to win the nomination in June's primary election, because there are significant splits in the Democratic party in Montana and nationwide.

But it's not something candidates or party officials often acknowledge openly. Some party members say talking about divides helps create them, and what the Democrats needs now is optimism.

Here's Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan at the state party's big fundraiser in Helena earlier this month.

"My friends, we are not labor or environmental Democrats. We are Democrats. We are not progressive, liberal, or moderate Democrats. We are Democrats. We are not rural Democrats and we are not urban Democrats. We are Democrats."

In 2016, though, Montana Democrats chose Bernie Sanders in the party primary over Hillary Clinton, who won enough delegates nationwide to be the party nominee.

So candidates trying to win the Democratic primary would appear to have to win enough populist support to secure the party’s nomination in June, and then pivot to appeal to a much broader set of voters in November.

At this point, the front runners are adopting a posture of composed vagueness.

"And when people ask me whether I’m a progressive or a moderate, I just say 'yes,' because I’m both," says Kathleen Williams, from Bozeman.

Kathleen Williams.
Credit Olga Kreimer

Williams is working to keep her own political identity open enough to attract independents and moderates that she says are supporting her campaign. The reality in Montana is that in 2016, Donald Trump won more than a 100,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton, and Republicans won all the statewide races except for Governor. Democratic nominees here have a hard time winning with support from their party members alone.

"One of the things that I’ve tried not to do is use labels, or be labeled," Williams says. "I’m running for Montana. And I’m running to be elected by Montanans. I guess I don’t really consider myself an element of the party that’s reaching out. I’m Kathleen and I’m running to bring better representation to Congress."

Grant Kier, from Missoula, also appears more moderate, but at the moment, he doesn’t appear to want that label to brand him. He offers himself as practical, and willing to hear out anyone with good idea.

Grant Kier.
Credit Olga Kreimer

"The best way I can be as a candidate is to rely on the things that have allowed me to succeed in Montana,  which is listening to people, and focusing on how to help them succeed on the issues they care about," Kier says. "And if they interpret that to be moderate, or really progressive, I’m going to let them interpret that as they see fit. I’m not looking for a particular label. I’m looking for real solutions that are meaningful to everyday Montanans."

John Heenan, of Billings, is banking on the new wave of populism politics in Montana to carry him in both the primary and the general election.

John Heenan.
Credit Olga Kreimer

"You know, there’s this kind of populist movement beyond parties. What president Trump ran as is a populist. That’s what Bernie Sanders ran as," Heenan says. "I think people are craving real change, big change. My message is not one that's tailored to Democratic voters. It’s tailored to Montana voters. It's a message that unites us as Montanans. What people care about is the resurrection of the American dream."

A unifying, overarching, message of the Democratic party is under construction.

Rob Saldin, a University of Montana political science professor and frequent commentator on Montana Public Radio says what the Democratic party is going through is a common tug-of-war within a political party when it’s trying to decide the best way forward.

"That is, do you essentially try to move to the center, however we want to define that, or do you want to offer the starkest choices possible?

"So, one time in which we’ve seen this play out in the past was during and after Republican candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama. McCain and Romney were weak, and squishy and too moderate, indistinguishable from the Democratic party," Saldin says. "This was the charge from the right wing of the Republican party. And the solution was to offer a very stark and different alternative."

And that came in the form of Donald Trump.

"And so Democrats are going through this now, this internal debate ... There is no way of staving off these internal fights," Saldin says. "We only have two parties in this country. And in a two-party system like that, you are going to have these so-called big tent parties that are going to be incorporating all kinds of groups. And so they’re inevitable. Do they always end in a positive way, however we want to define that? Well no, clearly not. But this is the process by which parties kind of sort out, what are we about."

In June, Montana Democrats will choose between populist Heenan and the more moderate Kier or Williams, and other primary contenders. But Saldin says a clear direction for the national Democratic Party likely won’t become clear before the midterm elections this November.