HELENA — Montana Democrats got a political reality check Saturday afternoon.
During a luncheon speech at the party’s 2019 rules convention in Helena, former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp posed a hypothetical question: If the 2020 election were held tomorrow, how many of the gathered delegates believed President Donald Trump would win a second term? Only a scattered few raised their hands.
“All of you should have your hands up,” Heitkamp said, citing a recent poll showing Trump’s approval rating at 44 percent, the highest of his presidency.
A wave of murmurs washed over the room, an indication that Heitkamp’s comment wasn’t what Democrats wanted to hear.
But the North Dakotan, who lost her seat to Republican Kevin Cramer in 2018, wasn’t done with the frank talk. Trump sailed to victory, Heitkamp said, by capturing votes in rural America that had gone to Barack Obama just eight years earlier. Those voters, she continued, have not since changed their minds. Rather than puff her speech with a silver lining, Heitkamp nudged Democrats toward a tough truth: If they’re to have any hope of defeating Trump next year, they have to change how they speak to rural America — about education, about health care, about jobs, and about Trump himself.
“The discussion you need to have needs to be about agriculture, but it needs to move beyond agriculture and talk about the rural dynamic,” Heitkamp told Montana Free Press before her speech. “How dependent is rural Montana on tourism? A lot of the places in western Montana are dependent on the [National] Park Service, on the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Hunting is a big issue that we don’t talk enough about.”
That kind of messaging is central to Heitkamp’s new One Country Project, which she launched this spring with fellow ousted Senate Democrat Joe Donnelly of Indiana, in an effort to re-engage with America’s heartland. And it’s a point that some of Montana’s 2020 Democratic candidates seemed to have picked up on.
Gubernatorial hopeful and current Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney kicked off the morning with a call for good opportunities, good wages, and adherence to “Montana values.” Delegates applauded Cooney’s pointed pledge, in reference to Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, to once again “keep a billionaire from New Jersey from becoming governor.”
“We need to be looking for better ways to work and grow the economy, give people the lives they want, and that’s where I think government really can play a role and have a positive influence,” Cooney told Montana Free Press.
In one way or another, nearly every candidate who crossed the day’s stage acknowledged Montana’s more remote corners, but none more so than Kathleen Williams, who strolled to the microphone amid the convention’s first standing ovation.
Williams won the 2018 Democratic primary for the U.S. House with considerable support from north-central and eastern Montana, and she is clearly carrying that experience forward into her second congressional attempt. She seasoned her speech with anecdotes from the campaign trail, among them a story about a Hi-Line farmer facing a tough wheat market.
“People are either being left behind or, if you look at rural Montana, there are policies that have been put in place that are really breaking some of the agricultural sector,” Williams told Montana Free Press. “What’s motivating a lot of people is, ‘Wow, we’ve got to change things.’”
Also vying for the party’s nod for Montana’s House seat were Matt Rains, a West Point graduate and combat veteran who introduced himself as a lifelong cowboy, and state Rep. Tom Winter of Missoula, who left Helena early to campaign on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, leaving a staffer to deliver his slated speech.
Moments of high energy punctuated a day otherwise reserved for the election of party officers. One such moment came during a speech by political newcomer and Senate hopeful John Mues. Mues went straight for Republican incumbent Steve Daines, accusing him of lacking empathy and compassion and of being “born into privilege.” Mues gave a polite nod to his fellow Democratic Senate candidate, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, before telling delegates he looks forward to defeating Daines in the 2020 general election.
“Not by a smidgeon,” Mues said, his voice building to a crescendo, “but by a margin of victory that surprises our state and nation, and that sends an undeniable signal into every corner of our country that hyper-partisanship, allegiance to special interests … and a gross historic failure to represent the values of one’s state and constituency will get you beaten every time.”
State Sen. Bryce Bennett, running for secretary of state, and Helena teacher Melissa Romano, running for superintendent of public instruction, also netted applause and scattered chuckles with not-so-veiled jabs at the Republicans currently holding both offices, Corey Stapleton and Elsie Arntzen, respectively. Romano vowed to “restore competent, focused leadership” to the superintendent’s office. Bennett similarly framed his candidacy as a positive step forward.
“Are you ready to move past the corruption and incompetence of the last three years and elect somebody who will help Montanans once again believe in the power of their vote?” Bennett asked.
The affirmative answer from state Democrats came back loudly, inevitably, and unanimously.
Subscribe to the Montana Lowdown Podcast and hear Alex Sakariassen and Montana Public Radio capital reporter Corin Cates Carney discuss the 2019 Montana Democratic Party Officer’s Convention with Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams.
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