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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.
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.”