HELENA — A large Democratic field running for Congress faces a difficult task: First survive a crowded primary battle, and then retake a seat Democrats haven't won in 18 years.
The field seems to be solidifying into two groups as the March 12 filing deadline approaches: Three fundraising front-runners seeking to prove they can win in November — and several others with little financial backing who are nonetheless hoping to appeal to the party's liberal base.
Democrats haven't mounted a strong challenge for the seat since 2000, when State School Superintendent Nancy Keenan came relatively close to beating Denny Rehberg in his first run for the office. Ever since, Rehberg has cruised to re-election.
The last — and only — Democrat to win the current at-large statewide congressional seat was Pat Williams, in 1994. Prior to 1992, the state had a western district that favored Democrats and an eastern seat that favored Republicans.
Republicans have dominated the statewide congressional seat after Williams stepped down and Republican Rick Hill seized it in 1996. But now that Rehberg is leaving the seat open, Democrats feel good about their chances — and Williams agrees.
The veteran Democrat said Republicans have twice won tough elections that got nasty in order to get the office, and kept it with the power of incumbency respected by Montanans who have historically liked their congressional delegation to gain seniority.
"It's an open seat so, yes, Democrats think they have a chance. Just look at how many Democrats are running?" Williams said.
Williams, who first won the state's old western congressional seat in 1978, said he hasn't yet backed anyone in his party's field as a favorite. And he acknowledged that whichever Democrat wins will find a difficult race against Republican businessman Steve Daines of Bozeman, who has successfully cornered GOP support and had more than $600,000 in campaign cash on hand at last count.
But Democrats in the race said they are betting that voters will want an alternative to what they view as a highly partisan tone in the Republican-led U.S. House.
"I think this year is going to be different because people are really looking for someone who can get something done," said Diane Smith, a political newcomer who moved to Whitefish 10 years ago. "I think the extremism in politics has really left people frustrated."
The former business executive from Washington D.C. entered the race late last year by raising a competitive $100,000 in her first quarter.
The newcomer is proving her credentials as a Democrat — despite some past donations to Republicans — by being outspoken in support of gay rights, and in defense of legal abortion and other issues. But she argues she can also appeal to conservative independents in the general election because of her own background successfully building private businesses.
Other front-runners in the money race are state legislators looking to move to Congress: state Sen. Kim Gillan and state Rep. Franke Wilmer.
Some Democrats have branded Gillan the moderate in the field. She is highlighting an argument that she has a pragmatic track record in the legislature of getting things done without fanfare. Unlike others in the field, the Billings workforce development coordinator at Montana State University-Billings said she won't be "finger pointing" at current House Republican leaders.
"If you want to get something done in a highly partisan atmosphere, which the U.S. House is, then working across party lines without leaving principles behind is critical," Gillan said.
Wilmer, a political science professor at MSU, is touting foreign relations experience developed overseas during her educational career — along with a bootstrapping personal biography of moving from blue collar jobs to an advanced degree.
And she is perhaps appealing to environmentalists helpful to a Democratic primary by promising to be a rare Montana politician — from either party — who opposes the Keystone XL as currently proposed.
"I am not shy about standing up for core Democratic values of fairness and voting rights," Wilmer said. "I think Democrats would rightly see me as person who can stand up for core values, but can also work with the other side."
Dave Strohmaier is a Missoula city councilman also courting the liberal wing of the party by making a big push for more federal support of passenger rail service. The former Forester Service and Bureau of Land Management employee, who lags behind in the money race, said he hopes to excite the party's base with a message built around experience with local issues facing small cities.
"I admit it, it is a huge undertaking to take on someone like Steve Daines who doesn't really have any serious Republican challengers and can stockpile money," Strohmaier said. "But money is not everything."
Helena lawyer Rob Stutz has shunned fundraising of any type, and has specifically promised to reject political action committee money and to refuse making campaign pledges for special interest groups. Stutz, who raised just a few thousand dollars in the most recent campaign reports, argued the statewide congressional seat can be won without money.
He argued he wants to "empower" people to get directly involved in his campaign without donating money, such as by publicly endorsing him on his website, talking to friends about the campaign and helping with social media. Stutz said money will eventually flow to whichever Democrat wins the June primary election.
"In the primary what I am showing people is that even though we will have less money, we can be effective with less money," Stutz said.
Other Democrats running without much fundraising effort include writer Melinda Gopher of Missoula and contractor and farmer Jason Ward of Hardin.