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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.
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.