Editor’s note — this story will be updated further as votes are counted.
Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman held a narrow, surprising lead over Billings attorney John Heenan late Tuesday night in Montana’s five-way Democratic U.S. House primary, with the winner taking on first-term Republican Congress Greg Gianforte.
With about two-thirds of the votes counted, Williams held a 600-vote lead over Heenan, capturing 34 percent of the vote to Heenan’s 33 percent. Grant Kier, a former land-trust director from Missoula, was third with 24 percent.
The contest features Williams, Heenan, Kier of Missoula, and Bozeman attorneys John Meyer and Jared Pettinato.
Heenan, Kier and Williams had the most active and well-financed campaigns and the nominee was expected to come from among their ranks.
Pettinato, who had 2 percent, and Meyer with 3 percent, are making first-time runs for public office and have run relatively low-key, low-budget campaigns. A sixth candidate, former state Sen. Lynda Moss of Billings, also is on the ballot, but she suspended her campaign several weeks ago, saying she couldn’t win. Still, she was winning 5 percent of the votes cast.
The winner of the crowded contest will take on Gianforte, a multimillionaire high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist from Bozeman, who won Montana’s only U.S. House seat in a special election in May 2017. A Democrat hasn’t won the seat since 1994.
Heenan and Kier had raised the most money – close to $800,000 each, although Heenan’s total includes $225,000 from his own pocket – and were seen as the likely front-runners.
But Williams had suggested she could pull an upset, coming from behind with the support of women voters in a primary that could have a high female turnout.
Heenan, an attorney who’s won some big verdicts against banks and insurance companies, is running 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 has 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.
Williams has emphasized her experience as a policymaker in the Legislature, including work on bills that helped small agriculture and people with cancer. She also has said she favors restricting the use of so-called “assault rifles,” and that she’s unafraid of being attacked by the gun lobby.
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.