HELENA — The crowded Democratic congressional primary is intensifying as the front-runners jockey for the attention of their party's primary voters, each making the "electability" case and promising to take the seat back from Republican hands.
State Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings, considered by many to be the frontrunner, says she is best positioned to attract independent voters with her pragmatic approach. Political newcomer and businesswoman Diane Smith promises to appeal to swing voters with her bipartisan background and push for cheaper energy. And state Rep. Franke Wilmer says she can best appeal to voters with a self-made resume where she worked her way from blue-collar jobs to college professor.
Democrats are hoping to find a nominee out of their seven candidates who can retake a congressional seat the party hasn't won in 18 years. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is vacating the office to challenge U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. And while Bozeman businessman Steve Daines has been coasting toward the GOP nomination and stockpiling more money than any other in the race, Democrats believe this could be their chance to win.
But before the hopefuls can think about the general election, they have to first win the hearts and minds of Democratic primary voters as some key issues emerge.
The Keystone XL pipeline is splitting two critical constituencies for Democrats. Labor groups ardently back the deal as a way to get jobs, while environmentalists oppose its construction and development of the Canadian oil fields it will support. And President Barack Obama's pro-gay marriage announcement revived that debate across the country.
Democratic primary voters are very likely to be in favor of gay marriage, but general election voters are far more split on the issue. In Montana, voters just in 2004 passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Smith, a newcomer to Montana politics, isn't being shy on either issue as she seeks to make a name for herself in Montana political circles. The former Washington D.C. business executive is unabashedly in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline. She also endorses legalized gay marriage without hesitation.
"I am a supporter of same-sex marriage and I am happy the president took the position he did," Smith said. "I've been married 31 years, I don't understand why we would want to deny someone else the opportunity to have that kind of relationship."
In other ways, Smith adopts conservative talking points. She bashes the complex Internal Revenue Service tax code as a drain on business productivity, and says wasteful government programs need to be axed. She also points to bipartisan campaign contributions she made when she was in business as proof she reaches across the aisle to reach people of both parties.
But she bashes House Republicans, and potential opponent Daines, as being too simplistic by calling for smaller government.
Gillan has a history of winning elections in a Billings legislative district full of moderate voters and is approaching the race as the front-runner at least one Democratic-leaning pollster showed her to be. And she is also being far more cautious on the issue of gay marriage.
Gillan said only reporters ask her about it, and says that Democratic primary voters aren't too interested in it. The workforce development coordinator would only say she believes "less, not more government" should be applied to the gay marriage question. But she wouldn't specify if that meant legalized gay marriage, a lesser standard of domestic partner rights, or something else.
On Keystone, however, she is clearly supporting a "safe and secure" pipeline as a way to add jobs in eastern Montana.
She said primary voters are really now focused on the race and interested in issues dealing with jobs. Gillan said she believes there is enthusiasm to win the seat.
"When people are affected in their pocketbook, that is when they are really motivated to get out and take action," Gillan said.
Wilmer is seeking to attract primary voters by making women's issues like abortion rights and gender pay equity a top talking point, a place where some Democrats feel house Republicans are vulnerable after getting tagged for "waging a war on women."
The MSU political science professor is also endorsing Obama's gay marriage stance.
"I think he has it right," Wilmer said. "It is a matter of civil rights."
On Keystone, Wilmer is trying to balance competing constituencies by saying it is important to find more "common ground" on the issue. She said she would amend the Keystone proposal to provide better labor guarantees and stronger environmental protections.
Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier is trying to surface in the race by being a very strong advocate of Obama's gay marriage stance, attacking the so-called GOP "war on women," and calling for federal health reform that goes even further and establishes a single-payer system. He is also courting the party's more liberal wing by making an issue of climate change, opposing too much fossil fuel development and promising to be "skeptical" of the Keystone XL pipeline that supports the tar sands.
Others in the race that have trailed far behind in visible support through fundraising are Rob Stutz of Helena, Jason Ward of Hardin, and Sam Rankin of Billings.