Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman won a close, surprising victory over Billings attorney John Heenan Tuesday in Montana’s five-way Democratic U.S. House primary, and will challenge first-term Republican Congress Greg Gianforte this fall.
Williams, 57, took the lead Tuesday night with a surge of votes from her home of Gallatin County and held it for most of the night, winning with 34 percent of the vote. Heenan had 32 percent, former land-trust director Grant Kier had 24 percent and three other candidates on the ballot split the final 10 percent.
Williams said Tuesday night she’s ready to take on Gianforte and battle for a seat that Democrats haven’t won since 1994.
“We are so thrilled to be the nominee and ready to move forward in the general election against Gianforte,” she told MTN News. "It’s about fixing health care, it is about fostering opportunity, it’s about returning civil dialog and integrity to a broken congress. It is about protecting our environment and outdoor heritage and it is about rebuilding our place in the world.”
Gianforte, a high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist from Bozeman, released a statement Tuesday night, but didn’t mention Williams, for she hadn’t yet been declared the winner. He said he looks forward to "a campaign of competing ideas."
"With the progress we’ve made, we can’t afford to go back to the failed, big-government policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi that threaten our Montana way of life," he said.
Williams won despite being outspent more than 2-to-1 by both Heenan and Kier — although she had suggested she could pull an upset, with the support of women voters in a primary that likely had a high female turnout.
But she also emphasized her experience as a policymaker in the Legislature, including work on bills that helped small agriculture and people with cancer, and took a bold stand on firearm regulation, saying she favors restricting the use of so-called “assault rifles” and is unafraid of being attacked by the gun lobby.
Heenan, an attorney who’s won some big verdicts against banks and insurance companies, ran as a Populist who wants to level the playing field for the average person that he says is getting run over by wealthy corporate interests. He favors a Medicare-for-all health system and talks often about undoing a system soaked with special-interest “dark money.”
Kier pitched himself more as a moderate who can work with both sides of the political aisle and appeal to reasonable voters of all political stripes – much as he did when he negotiated land and access deals as head of the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula.
All three have labeled Gianforte as a wealthy, pro-corporate Republican who’s out of touch with the average Montanan and who ignores those who don’t agree with his free-enterprise philosophy.
Gianforte has stayed mostly quiet during the primary campaign, concentrating instead on his work as a congressman.
Gianforte and his wife, Susan, co-founded RightNow Technologies in Bozeman in the mid-1990s, a software-development firm that was sold to Oracle Corp. in 2012 for $1.8 billion. The company employed several hundred people and had a hand in making Bozeman the fastest-growing city in the state.
Also on the general election ballot this fall are Libertarian Elinor Swanson of Billings and Green Party candidate Doug Campbell of Bozeman. The Green Party faces a court challenge of its qualification for the ballot, that will be decided by a state district judge in Helena.