HELENA, Mont. (AP) — For more than two decades, Montana's lone U.S. House seat has been a sacrificial altar where Democratic candidates' dreams are squashed. Not only have all 12 Democratic candidates since 1996 lost to Republicans, but only two of them have since gone on to win any election at all.
But the five candidates competing for the Democratic nomination in the June 5 primary election say this year is different.
The voters who gave President Donald Trump a huge win two years ago may be having second thoughts now, and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte appears to be more vulnerable than past incumbents, the Democratic contenders said in recent interviews and public forums.
It's an opportunity the party hasn't seen in nearly a quarter-century, and one of the keys to capitalizing on it will be deciding who will take on Gianforte and Trump.
"Do you fight Trump with Trump, or do you fight Trump with integrity and respect?" said candidate Grant Kier, a former land-trust director. "I think people are trying to figure out, do we want a candidate who uses the same Trump-style vitriol or do we want somebody who restores dignity and integrity?"
Kier's banking on the latter. The Democrat said he'll sit down with anybody who has good ideas and wants to disprove the cynical view that nothing good can happen in Washington's hyper-partisan atmosphere. "I think people are looking past parties right now and are looking at the person," Kier said.
Billings attorney and restaurant owner John Heenan takes a different approach. The Democrat has a populist message that he believes will be familiar to people who voted for Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Drain the swamp, reduce the influence of corporations, reform health care — all promises Trump made but hasn't followed through on, Heenan said.
"A lot of that resonated with me and the people in Montana," Heenan said. "Those are things that I've been really disappointed haven't played out."
Heenan and Kier have raised the most money among the five candidates, four of whom are making their first run for office. The fifth, Kathleen Williams, is a former state legislator who is looking to be the first woman to win Montana's House seat since Jeannette Rankin did it for the second time in 1941.
"Women have been doing incredibly well across the nation," she said. "Women are winning."
Attorneys Jared Pettinato and John Meyer have lagged far behind the other candidates in fundraising, but each says that it will be ideas, not cash, that will draw voters.
All five believe Gianforte is beatable only a year after winning a special election to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's term. They point to the 2016 elections, when Republicans swept every statewide office in Montana except one: Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock won re-election against Gianforte after the former technology entrepreneur spent millions of his own money to campaign.
That shows Gianforte is vulnerable even if there is still strong support for Trump among Montana voters, Kier and Williams said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is supporting Gianforte's re-election bid, dismissed the Democrats' criticisms.
"(House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi's army of clones can regurgitate these talking points all they want," NRCC spokeswoman Erin Collins said. "In just one year in office, Congressman Gianforte has proven himself to be a steadfast advocate for Montana, putting what's best for his constituents at the forefront of every issue."
The Democrats also cite Gianforte's voting record supporting big businesses, his adherence to the Republican party line and his reluctance to appear in town halls or other forums where he might be criticized.
Then there's Gianforte's attack against Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs last year before the special election, for which Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
It's probably what Gianforte's most known for outside Montana, and Democrats don't intend to let voters forget it. Last week, Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan formally requested a congressional ethics investigation into statements Gianforte made after the attack stating Jacobs was the instigator.
All of those factors should give the Democrats a shot at the long-coveted House seat this year, Heenan said.
"If the people of Montana say we'd rather have a guy that's a convicted criminal that votes on behalf of payday lenders and Wells Fargo and Equifax because he has an 'R' on his jersey, at least they've been given the choice," Heenan said.
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