Do you know who this is? 

Congressional candidate Kim Gillan could use an introduction.

Missoula native Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916. That was two years after Montana women were given equal suffrage, and four years before the Nineteenth Amendment gave women across the United States the right to vote. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” Rankin said after being elected. “But I won’t be the last.”

Since Rankin’s election, 276 women have served in Congress (compared to about 12,000 men). But Rankin, a Republican who was voted again to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940 and became, in 1941, the only member to vote against entering World War II, remains the only Montana woman to represent the state in Washington, D.C.

Seven decades later, Kim Gillan is gunning to be the second. The Democratic state senator from Billings is campaigning for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her bid comes during the so-called “War on Women,” the political catch phrase used to describe efforts by conservatives to restrict reproductive rights and government funding for women’s health care.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

The chance at being Montana’s second woman in Congress is one reason Gillan’s campaign would figure to stand out. Another reason is that, after serving 16 years in the Montana Legislature—eight in the House and eight in the Senate, with leadership positions in both chambers—Gillan brings a lawmaking prowess and penchant for bipartisanship; only twice in her eight sessions were Democrats in the majority. Yet another reason is that, with “jobs” being the election year’s most discussed topic, Gillan is a workforce development and training coordinator at Montana State University-Billings.

But it turns out that many Montanans—perhaps as many as 59 percent, according to one poll conducted in September—don’t know who Kim Gillan is.

Gillan’s relative anonymity can be blamed partly on the fact that she ran against six other candidates in the Democratic primary, diluting her name recognition. She emerged from the June primary with 32 percent of the vote to face Republican candidate Steve Daines, a deep-pocketed businessman from Bozeman with no lawmaking experience. Daines won 72 percent of the vote in his party’s three-way primary, but he had been the presumptive nominee long before that, allowing him to build on the name recognition he established while campaigning for lieutenant governor in 2008, and mount a significant fundraising advantage over his Democratic challenger. In July, his $853,000 in cash on hand was nearly 10 times the $88,000 Gillan had in the bank.

All of which makes Gillan, despite her legislative record, the decided underdog. The polls, the candidates’ fundraising disparity and an unpopular Democratic president all point to a Daines victory. But there are enough undecided voters—nearly 38 percent, according to an MSU-Billings poll released Oct. 10—to suggest that the race could go either way. To lure those voters before Election Day on Nov. 6, Gillan knows she needs to get her message out—and fast.

•••

Steve Daines has distilled his campaign down to four words: “More jobs, less government.” The slogan resonates with many disaffected voters in the state. All the Daines campaign signs that dot Montana neighborhoods and highways display those words. It has become his political identity. When wavering voters walk into the ballot booth, Daines’ consistent messaging might stick.

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Daines, 50, is a former executive at Bozeman-based RightNow Technologies Inc., a software company. A year ago, Oracle Corp. acquired RightNow for $1.5 billion. Daines’ 28-year business career doesn’t quite fit with the traditional way prominent Montana politicians sell themselves. He can’t pull off Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s signature down-home, bolo-tie folksiness. He isn’t a third-generation flat-topped farmer who lost three fingers in a meat grinder like U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Nor did he formerly raise cattle and cashmere goats like U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, the man whose seat Daines is trying to fill. Daines fills none of those roles, but he is handsome, likable and polished.

In late August, he spoke at the Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Fla. In his short speech he touched on the jobs he created through RightNow, his 25-year marriage and four children, his great-great grandmother from Norway who homesteaded in Montana, Ronald Reagan and the “out-of-control spending, crushing debt and job-destroying regulations” that “threaten our children’s future.” He’s running on basic themes few Republicans in a Republican-leaning state would disagree with. They’re repeated in all of his campaign commercials.

“Nobody’s going to look at Steve Daines and think he’s some terrible guy,” says Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “He appears like he’s a nice guy. He has a nice family. He has an honorable background.” All of which, Saldin says, overshadows Daines’ support for controversial legislation such as U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. “But still, he’s not offensive in the same way that we can imagine some candidates perhaps being,” Saldin says.

Daines declined to be interviewed by the Independent for this story.

Kim Gillan’s message isn’t nearly as succinct. In an interview with the Independent in August, Gillan said, “You know, honestly, sometimes I don’t know how to label myself.” She was quick to rattle off accomplishments, but struggled to boil her professional and legislative careers down to a simple message to introduce herself to Montana voters. She said her campaign needed to do a better job of building on her image as a “proven problem solver.”

“My track record, not just in the legislature, but in the community, is that of a problem solver—bringing collaboration instead of endless stalemates,” she said. “It’s Kim Gillan who will sit down, listen, try to figure out whether there is an opportunity for collaboration, and if there is, figure out how we can get it done.” She describes herself as a “pit bull” and a “policy wonk.”

Pat Williams, Montana’s last Democratic representative in the U.S. House, serving from 1979 to 1997, says Republicans have been much better over the last 20 years at “sloganeering” than have Democrats. “The Gillan-Daines race is no exception,” he says.

It’s easier to sloganeer, Williams says, when, like Daines, you don’t have a legislative record. “When you have a record, interestingly, you’re a little more hazy to people than if you have no record and you’re a clean slate, because you can identify yourself, and people don’t have opinions yet,” he says.

Williams believes Gillan needs to starkly contrast her experience with Daines’ lack of it, and talk up the significance of Montana finally sending another woman to Congress.

“If I was Kim,” Williams says, “I would wind up and throw those two fastballs—experience and the need for at least some gender equity in Congress.”

•••

Gillan’s first big ball game occurred at the race’s opening debate in Missoula on Sept. 25, an event broadcast throughout Montana. Saldin put the event in perspective, saying it was “really about these candidates trying to introduce themselves to the state, in many cases for the first time.”

About an hour before the candidates took the stage, the University of Montana’s Performing Arts/Radio TV Center was bustling like the backstage of a theater before a play. Daines, tall and fit and wearing a dark suit, left the makeup room and retreated to a small office with one of his aides to rehearse talking points. He declined to let this reporter listen in.

Gillan went to the makeup room and sat in front of a mirror framed by light bulbs while a makeup artist prepared her for high-definition television. The room was silent until Gillan defused the tension.

“Everyone’s so quiet,” she said, “like they’re waiting for the new and improved Kim Gillan.”

It was an interesting statement considering the long legislative resume Gillan’s running on. Voters in the Billings Heights area sent Gillan to the Montana House in 1996, making her the first Democrat to represent the district; former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns was one of her constituents. She served four terms in the House and then, beginning in 2004, four terms in the Senate. She’s been the House minority leader and Senate minority whip. She’s chaired or vice-chaired several committees. Term limits prevent her from running again.

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In 2001, when Gillan was the House minority leader, a profile of her in the Billings Gazette said she “defies the GOP-driven stereotype that Democrats are anti-business. She has a reputation of being one of the House’s best strategic thinkers on economic and education issues.” (The article also described her as a “Volvo-driving soccer mom.”)

Among her proudest achievements, she says, is ushering through legislation that required insurance companies to cover those with diabetes and autism. The autism bill became law in 2009, the height of the national debate over the Affordable Care Act. “You don’t pass insurance reform in 2009 unless you can get Democrats and Republicans to find some way to collaborate,” Gillan says.

“She’s been a big figure in the legislature for a long time,” says Saldin. The fact that many Montanans don’t know her well, he says, “may indicate that a lot of people tune out the legislature.”

Gillan’s hoping people tune in for the debate. Back in the makeup room, as a photographer snapped photos of her, she faced him, stuck her thumb in her ears, wagged her fingers and stuck her tongue out. “If you can’t do this with some humor,” she said, “then you can’t do it.” She joked about her mother “always admonishing me for not wearing enough makeup.” When the makeup artist finished, Gillan said, “Now that I’m all dolled up, it’s time to go party.”

During the debate, Gillan and Daines sparred over “Obamacare.” Gillan said she’d “go to work on fixing what we need to fix, and preserve what we like.” Daines said he’d vote to repeal the law altogether.

Gillan framed Daines as an extremist who supports Paul Ryan’s budget, which includes turning Medicare into a “voucher program.” She described herself as a pragmatist. “We need to start from the center,” she said.

Daines called for a “flatter and simpler” tax code with lower rates on corporations. In closing statements, Gillan said she would work with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress “because the issues are too important to let this gridlock continue.” Daines touched on jobs, burdensome regulations and “exploding debt.”

Pat Williams watched the debate a building away from the TV studio, in a room in UM’s law school. The Democrat audibly sighed after some of Daines’ answers, but gave the candidate some credit.

“He impressed me,” Williams would say later. “He’s smart. He’s very presentable. A good debater. But frankly, his no-experience shows.”

But Williams’ sentiment isn’t showing up in the polls.

•••

About a week after the first debate, Gillan opened a new line of attack against Daines and his “more jobs, less government” message. The AP reported that RightNow Technologies secured more than $15 million in government contracts over the last decade. About $13.7 million of that came from the Department of Defense, according to USAspending.gov. That database shows 57 total federal contracts, though more than 170 public agencies reportedly use RightNow’s software.

Gillan says it’s hypocritical to campaign on “less government” while having benefited from those contracts. In the second debate, on Oct. 2 in Billings, Gillan asked, “Why is it okay for government spending if it benefits your bottom line...but not okay for those important and crucial programs for Montana?” Daines’ response is that RightNow’s software has made government more efficient.

She hoped the revelation of Daines’ hypocrisy would be a game-changer, but that hasn’t been the case. Just days after the AP story ran in papers across the state, the Billings Gazette, Gillan’s hometown paper, endorsed Daines.

Gillan has “served her Heights constituents well in the Legislature,” the paper’s editorial board wrote on Oct. 7. “She has [a] strong record of community service and many years of experience working with local businesses. But Daines has the executive business experience America needs to find federal cost savings and new ideas to stimulate the economy.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

It’s an example of how Gillan has appeared to gain momentum in recent months, but not to the point of altering the underlying dynamics of the race.

In mid-September, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, added Gillan’s campaign to its “Red to Blue” program. The program targets 53 House seats around the country currently held by Republicans that the committee thinks have a good chance to flip. The DCCC provides those campaigns with guidance and financial backing. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who chairs the committee, said in a statement that Gillan’s campaign has “incredible grassroots energy that has put this race on the map. She is tough, smart and can get things done for her state while protecting Medicare and Social Security, and standing up for women’s health.”

The national attention helps to explain how Gillan’s campaign raised $375,000 in the third quarter, half of what it had raised in the previous quarters combined. But that haul is still less than the $490,000 Daines brought in during the same period. Overall, he’s winning the fundraising race $1.6 million to $750,000.

Like the fundraising figures, Gillan also faces an uphill battle in the most recent polls. On Oct. 5, the Gillan camp released the results of a campaign-commissioned poll conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Mellman Group that gave Daines a 36-34 lead. Gillan called it a statistical dead heat, with 25 percent of those surveyed still undecided. But for every poll that encourages Gillan supporters, there are two that show Daines with a clear advantage. On Oct. 10, Public Policy Polling survey results gave Daines a 43-34 lead, with only 12 percent undecided.

“Steve Daines is a credible candidate with an honorable background, and you’ve got President Obama at the top of the ticket,” says Saldin, the UM political science professor. “That’s such a tough environment this cycle. If this was 2014, it could be a totally different story. [With the] exact same candidates, we’d see a real different situation.”

•••

It’s early evening on Oct. 11, and Kim Gillan is standing in the foyer of a home in Missoula’s South Hills greeting a line of women making their way inside. She’s sucking on the straw of a Dairy Queen soda cup. When her drink’s finished, she pops off the lid and shakes the ice into her mouth. She’s her characteristic upbeat, high-energy self, shaking everyone’s hand and thanking each one for coming.

Gillan’s logged some 60,000 miles on her car during the course of the campaign. She jokes that she’s on her “15th wind.”

Tonight’s campaign event is called “Wine, Women, and Kim Gillan,” a meet-and-greet during which the couple of dozen women in attendance are penning handwritten postcards to fellow female voters around the state. After a few minutes of mingling, Gillan addresses the entire group.

“I’m Kim Gillan, and I’m running to be Montana’s next congresswoman,” she says. “We need to get down to brass tacks because we don’t have that much longer. Almost only three weeks. And one of the most important messages that I can communicate tonight is that we can get this done, the race is very close, and the women in this room, and the women in this state, are going to be the deciding factor in who is going to be elected to this congressional seat.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Gillan goes on to give a wide-ranging stump speech, touching on her record in the legislature, in her Billings community and in workforce development, and how she’s from a blue-collar family, with parents raised during the Great Depression. She talks about the importance of education, Medicare, Social Security and not extending tax breaks for the wealthy. She says she’ll be a champion for women in Congress.

Then she goes on the offensive, a departure from her positive campaign commercials and largely civil debates with Daines. She rips into him, saying he’ll be a “rubber stamp” for Republicans, evidenced by the fact House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, visited Montana in August for a Daines campaign event.

“We need someone who’s going to stand up for Montanans,” she says. “I have a track record. And even though my opponent has a lot more money, you cannot buy a track record. Agreed?”

The audience responds with perfunctory yeses and nods.

She turns to the “audacity” of Daines to campaign on “More jobs, less government” after his company benefited from so many government contracts. “To go and basically campaign on the motto of less government is like, ‘Do as I say, but not as I do,’” she says. “And if he does that now, in Montana, what’s going to happen when he’s 2,000 miles away?”

Gillan is on a roll, but none of what she says resonates quite like the words offered by Carol Williams, who walks into the room about halfway through Gillan’s speech. Williams is the matriarch of Missoula Democrats, having served eight years in the Montana Senate—the same eight years as Gillan—and one session as the state’s first female Senate majority leader. She’s married to Pat Williams.

Gillan turns to her at the end of her speech and asks, “Carol, any words of wisdom?”

Williams recounts Gillan’s difficult primary race. “People said, ‘Oh, she can’t do it. Nobody knows who she is.’ But she did [win],” Williams says.

“And so it’s out there, and it’s possible, and we think she can do it,” she says. “And as Pat always says, I think 72 years…”

Williams pauses and her eyes well up.

“...72 years is long enough to wait for another woman…It’s time—really time—that women say, ‘Enough with the men and all their ideas in Washington that are starting to really hurt Montana women.’ It’s time that we tell our friends that we need to do this. We aren’t going to get a better chance.”

The women give Williams boisterous applause.

And then Gillan announces a new messaging effort: a commercial featuring a 72-year-old woman talking about the opportunity for Gillan to be the first Montana congresswoman since Jeannette Rankin. It hit the airwaves Oct. 16, a week after roughly 60 percent of Montanans who vote absentee received their ballot in the mail.


The file on Steve Daines

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Age: 50

Education: Montana State University

Political experience: Failed lieutenant governor run in 2008; shared ticket with Roy Brown of Billings

Family: Married father of four

Big endorsers: NRA, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Right to Life Committee

Big-name supporters: John Boehner, Rick Santorum

Facebook “likes”: 1,829

What he’s Tweeting: “Had a great meeting last week with our next Vice President, Paul Ryan.”

Random number: $1.5 billon—amount Oracle paid to acquire Daines’ former company, RightNow Technologies, in 2011

Fun fact: Daines attended the 1984 GOP National Convention in Dallas as one of the youngest delegates for President Ronald Reagan

Quote of the campaign: “More jobs, less government.”

Website: www.stevedaines.com


The file on Kim Gillan

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Age: 60

Education: UCLA, Cornell University

Political experience: Sixteen years in Montana Legislature

Family: Divorced mother of two

Big endorsers: About 20 labor leaders

Big-name supporters: Gov. Brian Schweitzer

Facebook “likes”: 1,266

What she’s Tweeting: “@DainesforHouse got $15 million from tax payers for his business. Doesn’t sound like ‘less gov’t’ to me.”

Random number: 60,000—miles driven during campaign

Fun fact: Gillan’s father, a union longshoreman in San Francisco, voted for the famous strike of 1934

Quote of the campaign: “I say, ‘Less rhetoric, more results.’”

Website: www.gillanforcongress.com

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