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How to win the West? Democratic women aim again at GOP seats

Candidates hit the road in the RVs and build on networks from 2018

Democrat Kathleen Williams campaigns for Montana’s at-large House seat at the annual Crow Fair in 2018. Williams is one of several repeat female House candidates from Western states this cycle.
Democrat Kathleen Williams campaigns for Montana’s at-large House seat at the annual Crow Fair in 2018. Williams is one of several repeat female House candidates from Western states this cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After winning a six-candidate primary with less than 34 percent of the vote in 2018, Kathleen Williams lost the general election for Montana’s at-large House seat. This year, the Democrat hopes the second time’s the charm. 

Williams, a former state lawmaker who breezed through her primary earlier this month, is one of a handful of women in Western states who missed the House Democratic wave of 2018 but are trying again this year to put Republican seats in reach. Though none has the benefit of incumbency, each got extra time to meet voters in person before the coronavirus crisis stopped such retail politicking. 

In addition to Williams, Carolyn Long is taking on GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler again in Washington’s 3rd District, while Alyse Galvin, an independent who would caucus with Democrats, has a rematch against Republican Don Young, who’s seeking a 24th term to Alaska’s at-large seat. 

Though not a phenomenon exclusive to Western states — Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, for example, is back at it after coming close in 2018 to ousting Republican Rodney Davis in Illinois’ 13th District — the female candidates in what was once the frontier offer an interesting brand of independence and focus on public lands matters combined with the familiar Democratic talking points on health care. Their campaign strategies often ring similar, such as packing up the camper and hitting the road.  

Other Democratic women making second runs in the West include Gina Ortiz Jones, who narrowly lost Texas’s 23rd District, and Hiral Tipirneni, who is running in Arizona’s 6th after unsuccessful runs in a neighboring seat.

All are in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, which provides organizational and fundraising support. These candidates could ultimately help House Democrats expand their majority in the next Congress, or they could offset possible losses from some of the party’s most vulnerable members in other GOP-leaning districts.

All have difficult races ahead. 

Past is prologue 

The candidates may be the same, but the dynamics of their races have changed this cycle. 

“A lot of Montanans know me, and they didn’t last time around,” Williams said in a recent interview. “We traveled the state, put 75,000 miles on the car between last cycle and this cycle before the pandemic hit.” 

She says she became known for her “truck camper and the dog,” whose name is Danni, crisscrossing the Treasure State. 

“So that foundation that we built last time that we can now build on this time is one thing that’s different,” she said.

Williams is vying for an open seat, so her opponent, Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale, does not benefit from incumbency, though he too got to know voters in 2018 during his unsuccessful Senate bid against incumbent Democrat Jon Tester. 

Williams won her primary in early June with just shy of 90 percent of the vote, a contrast to 2018. She had $1.2 million on hand as of last month, while Rosendale held just shy of $900,000, according to federal campaign finance reports. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.

Democrats and their outside groups also plan to invest heavily in Montana’s competitive Senate race, which pits the Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock against Republican incumbent Steve Daines. Williams says she and Bullock are planning a “coordinated campaign.” 

And experience running for office can be a plus, even if previous attempts failed.

“The truth is that running for office is a skill,” said Ben Ray, senior director of campaign communications for EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights and has endorsed Williams and Long. “I think there’s reasons to be optimistic for all of them.” 

Long’s shot 

Herrera Beutler, who is one of 13 GOP women in the House, beat Long by 5 points in 2018 in a district that’s a mix of suburbs and rural enclaves. It was Long’s first attempt at elected office. 

Long made a point of traveling the sprawling 3rd District and holding dozens of town hall meetings during her 2018 campaign. And she’s tried to continue that in her 2020 race, although the town hall meetings are now conducted online due to the pandemic. 

“We got to meet with a whole lot of people within that district and hear what was important to them,” said Long, a political science professor. “And we just decided that with that foundation laid, it was important to have just a little bit more time to get out there to meet with the voters.” 

Long, like the other do-over candidates, launched her campaign earlier this time around, which also gave her more time to raise money. And she’s outraised Herrera Beutler in the last three fundraising quarters.

“We started quite late last time,” she said. “So starting early and not starting from scratch made this run a lot easier. … We knew if we had a longer runway, we would have just that much more time to communicate our message and to speak with the people.” 

Long had $1.1 million in the bank as of March 31 to $1.3 million for Herrera Beutler. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

While these Democrats are running on health care, like others in their party, public lands and climate change issues are also prominent for those in the Western states like Montana, Washington and Alaska. With protests nationwide, Democratic challengers are also talking about racial justice and economic inequality. Candidates such as Long also are running on expanding access to broadband, as schools and companies have moved to cyberspace during the pandemic.  

“Because of my personal experience with a family running a small struggling family business, I know how important economic opportunity is in our rural communities, how important it is to focus on those family wage jobs, and really make sure you’ve got different pathways for economic success,” Long said.

Aside from Ortiz Jones, these Democratic women in the West are also running in districts that backed President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump carried Washington’s 3rd District by 7 points, but Long said she can appeal to voters who have an independent streak and shirk partisanship. She supported Trump’s impeachment, but believes she can win over his supporters by explaining that she would hold any executive accountable.

“Rather than leading with ‘I’m a Democrat,’ it’s ‘I’m a problem solver, and I’m here for you,’” Long said. 

Gassing up the RV

Galvin has also built her campaign on personal contact with voters, a strategy that presents unique challenges while running to represent the entire state of Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas. 

Alaska’s Alyse Galvin has built on her 2018 connections to develop a fundraising edge over Republican incumbent Don Young. (Courtesy Alyse for Alaska)

She started six months earlier than she did in 2018 and has been driving around in her campaign RV so people can see her even if she can’t get out to talk to as many people during the pandemic. 

Galvin also learned through visits to community service organizations during her first campaign that if she wanted potential voters to open up to her, she had to show them more of herself. 

She launched her 2020 campaign with a video filmed in front of her childhood home, where the flowers blooming in the front garden belie the scenes she says she witnessed inside. 

“Honestly, behind that door, things got pretty tough,” she tells the camera, explaining how she rebounded from a childhood destabilized by her parents’ addiction, an experience, she said, that has prepared her to fight for others in Alaska dealing with similar problems. 

Like Long and Williams, Galvin has built on her 2018 connections to develop a fundraising advantage over her opponent. Young has occupied the state’s sole congressional seat since 1973 — making him the longest serving GOP member of Congress ever. 

Galvin has raised more money than any Democrat who has run against him over that time, outraising him at least 2-to-1 in every quarter, her spokeswoman (and daughter) Bridget Galvin said. The candidate had $961,000 in the bank as of March 31, compared to Young’s $803,000. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.

In Montana, Williams is evaluating when she can hit the road again in her camper.

She has an uphill climb ahead of her in a state that voted for Trump by 20 points. But if she prevails in November, she would be the second woman Montanans have sent to Washington; the first was Jeannette Rankin, who was also the first woman to serve in Congress.

Rankin set a model for public service, Williams said, adding, “It would be an honor to be Montana’s second congresswoman.” 

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