Something unexpected happened shortly before 8:30 p.m. on June 5. Billings attorney John Heenan, a presumed frontrunner in the five-way Democratic U.S. House primary, lost his comfortable lead. But the candidate who surged ahead of him wasn’t his fiercest rival from the previous five months. No, Missoula’s Grant Kier was trailing by roughly 800 votes. It was Kathleen Williams, a three-term state lawmaker from Bozeman, who’d pulled into the lead.
As Kier fell further behind, Heenan and Williams settled into a tight race over a long night. The Associated Press called the race for Williams just before 4 a.m. By morning, Flathead contender Jared Pettinato was calling to congratulate Williams on her surprise victory. Heenan tweeted his supporters to rally behind her, including a link to Williams’ online fundraising page.
How did she do it? While there was no public polling during the primary to indicate which way voters might lean, Heenan and Kier outraised Williams three times over — $968,000 and $772,000, respectively, to Williams’ $286,000 — and spent far more, too. Heenan even stumped at screenings of the documentary Dark Money at Sundance and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this spring. The film featured Heenan in his role on the legal team that prosecuted former state lawmaker Art Wittich.
Rob Saldin has a few theories on what he calls Williams’ “remarkable achievement.” A political science professor at the University of Montana and co-host of Montana Public Radio’s weekly “Campaign Beat” program, Saldin believes Williams staked out an effective ideological turf between Heenan and Kier. Heenan came across as the “Sanders-style aggressive populist,” Saldin says, while Kier, “to the extent there’s a playbook out there for how a Democrat is successful in the state of Montana,” followed it. Williams, meanwhile, ran on style and substance, exhibiting a soft touch, but not so soft as to be easily dismissed. The appeal turned out to be broad.
“Williams wasn’t winning everywhere, but if she wasn’t winning, she was typically coming in a strong second place, and she didn’t have any of the big important counties where she fell flat,” Saldin says. “Heenan and Kier both did.”
Williams won a swath of rural counties across eastern, central and northwestern Montana with numbers large and small — Lincoln with 402 votes, Chouteau with 172, Wibaux with 8 — and locked down her home county of Gallatin with 54.44 percent of the vote. She kept Heenan in check in the Great Falls area as well, tying his 3,444 votes in Cascade County. That was one of the areas that Williams’ campaign watched particularly closely on election night.
“We put a fair amount of our television budget into the Great Falls media market,” says Andrew Markhoff, Williams’ campaign manager, “so we had hopes that that was going to pay off in Cascade County and thought that would be a good test case of how well our message was resonating.”
Perhaps most tellingly, Williams took a big chunk of the vote in Missoula County, not only limiting Kier’s home-field lead to fewer than 500 votes, but besting him in 19 of the county’s 52 precincts. The Clinton, Petty Creek and Potomac areas all swung heavily for Williams, as did portions of Frenchtown and central Missoula. Missoulians’ familiarity with Williams was no accident. Markhoff says the city was critical to the campaign’s strategy from day one. Williams attended a Missoula Moms Demand Action vigil the weekend before the election.
In addition to health care and gun control, one of Williams’ central campaign themes was to carry on the tradition set by Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first female member of Congress and Montana’s only female congressional representative to date. Saldin suspects that narrative had particular resonance among Democrats, regardless of gender, following Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election.
“For Democrats, that’s a lingering source of both frustration and disappointment, tinged with the sense that there was something unfair about it, given that she did win the popular vote,” Saldin says.