HELENA — OK, here’s a political pop quiz: Can you name the top two candidates running for Montana’s U.S. House seat?
No? Well, don’t be too hard on yourself, because it’s a race flying well under the radar — which doesn’t seem to bother either of its major candidates.
“Maybe we’re doing Montanans a service by not being on the front page of the paper every day, and invading their radio and TV,” says Steve Daines, the Republican running for Montana’s open U.S. House seat. “I think Montanans are probably relieved there is at least one race out there, where they’re not seeing all the negative advertising.”
Kim Gillan, the Democrat in the race, also says the lack of publicity so far is no big deal, for she plans to keep running the race the way she’s been doing already: Crisscrossing the state, talking to voters and listening to their concerns.
“It’s the retail politics that I’ve always engaged in in my (legislative) district, that I’m finding to be an effective way to engage people in this race,” she says.
Gillan, 60, a state senator from Billings, and Daines, 49, a former business executive from Bozeman, are vying for Montana’s only seat in the U.S. House, an office being vacated this year by Rep. Denny Rehberg, the Republican who’s leaving the post to challenge U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Win or lose in the Senate race, Rehberg will be out of his current job, clearing the way for Gillan, Daines, or Libertarian Dave Kaiser (see related story) to be Montana’s next and only representative in the U.S. House.
While Rehberg, Tester and their allies have been slugging it out on TV with big-money ad buys since springtime, Daines and Gillan have run mostly low-key affairs, raising campaign funds and traveling the state to meet with potential voters.
Yet while Daines and Gillan have similar takes on the nature of the race, they offer voters a stark political contrast on major issues of the day, including health-care reform, taxes, Medicare and abortion.
Daines says he would vote to repeal President Barack Obama’s health-reform law, the Affordable Care Act, and that he would have voted for the so-called Ryan budget, the conservative budget blueprint from U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and endorsed by the GOP-controlled House in March.
“We’ve got to start moving forward with constructive solutions that address the economy and pro-growth policies, as well as the unsustainable spending path that we’re on today,” he says. “(Ryan’s) plan is a step in that direction.”
Daines says he’d consider revamping Medicare for those younger than 55, in order to keep the program financially sound – and that could include a voucher program, giving people government support to buy private health insurance.
Daines also says he’d vote to extend all of the Bush tax cuts this year, including those for the wealthy: “The last thing we need to have is a huge tax increase at the first of this year, at the same time our economy is struggling to grow.”
Gillan, on the other hand, says the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 or $500,000 a year should be ended or phased out.
She wants to see the “whole range of options” that would keep Medicare financially viable, but doesn’t like the idea of a voucher plan.
She also says she would have voted against the Ryan budget, because it “balances the budget on the backs of middle-class, working folks, and that’s basically what we have in Montana.”
The Ryan budget would cut student loans, worker-training funds, women’s health-care programs and other “investments” that help the economy and particularly help moderate-income families like those in Montana, she says.
Gillan says she supports the Affordable Care Act, including its mandate for people to have health insurance by 2014, because it will increase access to care, stop “cost-shifting” of care for the uninsured and work to control costs.
The two candidates also differ on abortion, with Daines saying he’d like to see the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1972 decision that legalized abortion, and Gillan saying she fully supports a woman’s right to choose whether she wants to have an abortion.
“Issues of birth control and abortion should be left up to a woman to decide, with her family and medical provider,” she says.
As the race enters its final 90 days, Daines certainly has one advantage: Money.
A candidate for almost two years, Daines has raised far more in campaign funds than Gillan and, as of June 30, had a nearly 10-to-1 cash advantage. He had $853,000 in his campaign account, while Gillan, who had to get through a crowded Democratic primary in June, emerged with only $88,000 in the bank.
Gillan says she can’t out-raise Daines, but that money doesn’t always make the difference in Montana politics, and that she’ll be emphasizing her legislative record of working with Democrats and Republicans to pass bills and budgets on things that matter to everyday Montanans.
“All the money in the world won’t buy you a track record,” she says. “As far as I know, (Daines) is mostly about rhetoric.”
Daines says his track record is one of creating real jobs as an executive at RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman software firm with 1,100 employees, and balancing real budgets.
“This is an election that’s going to decide which direction this country heads in the future,” he says. “People are anxious about future jobs for their kids and grandkids. … They see us following a path that is leading us down the course that Europe has been on, of higher taxes and large debt.”