BILLINGS (AP) — Democrat Kathleen Williams got a late start and was outspent by her opponents but pulled off an upset in Montana’s crowded U.S. House primary to cap a big day in several states for women seeking elected office.
Williams topped Billings attorney John Heenan in a tight race called around 4 a.m. Wednesday.
The former three-term state lawmaker from Bozeman faces equally long odds against Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte, who enters the general election with a huge financial advantage despite his much-publicized assault of a reporter last year. He is looking to extend his party’s two-decade lock on the post.
Williams said she’s undaunted and plans to stick with the progressive themes that prevailed in the primary: health care, expanding job opportunities and a willingness to talk about gun violence.
She would be the first woman elected to the seat since Jeannette Rankin in 1941.
“It has been a long time since Montana elected a woman to Congress, and people are hopeful to change that statistic,” she said. “I think I was the most qualified candidate and I happened to be a woman, so I think that was an added plus for some.”
Williams highlighted her work in the Legislature, including making sure insurance companies cover routine care for cancer patients. She also helped shepherd through a water compact for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Women are running for office in record numbers this year in response to a wave of activism. Female gubernatorial candidates advanced Tuesday in New Mexico and South Dakota. Female Republican governors in Alabama and Iowa are seeking their first full terms after succeeding men who resigned.
Gianforte said Wednesday that voters should pick the best person for the job and don’t want to return to the “failed politics of Barack Obama.”
“This is going to be a campaign about competing ideas,” Gianforte said. “I’m going to be with Donald Trump letting people keep more of what they earn, cutting red tape and reforming the VA.”
In conservative-leaning Montana, political analyst Jeremy Johnson said Williams must reach beyond her party’s base. He said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana has done so by using his status as a farmer to appeal to voters who might not agree with Democratic principles.
“Some of that is in identity,” said Johnson, an associate professor at Carroll College. “She was born in an Army hospital, grew up as the daughter of a veteran. She has to make those connections with veterans in Montana.”
Before the campaign, Williams worked for more than 30 years in natural resources planning, most recently as associate director for the conservation group Western Landowners Alliance and previously for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She served in the Montana House of Representatives from 2011 to 2016.
Heenan and former land-trust director Grant Kier outraised Williams by a combined margin of more than 6-to-1 during the primary, according to campaign finance reports submitted in May. She entered the race in late October, almost three months after Heenan.
A key question going forward is how much support she receives from donors and the national party.
Gianforte brought in about $5 million during last year’s special election to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, whom Trump appointed Interior Department secretary.
The day before the election, witnesses say he slammed a reporter to the ground and hit him, though the candidate and his campaign initially said Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was the instigator. Gianforte eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
Johnson said it remains to be seen if that attack and Gianforte’s initial story becomes a major factor in the upcoming election.