As Montana yards fills with campaign signs, as canvassers crisscross neighborhoods in support of gubernatorial candidates, and as TV ads take turns blasting U.S. Senate candidates, the names Kim Gillan and Steve Daines rarely appear on the political radar.
The two candidates for the state’s sole U.S. House seat remain largely unknown to voters as Election Day draws near. According to Montana State University political scientist David Parker, only about 20 to 30 percent of voters can identify Democrat Gillan and her Republican rival Daines.
Gillan, who trails Daines in money, has had to rely on traditional methods to get her name out.
“I’ve traveled 1,000 miles in the last two and half days, meeting with different groups,” Gillan said.
Despite the challenges of running a grassroots campaign, she said it has advantages in a state like Montana where “people like to meet you, they like to shake your hand and they really aren’t going to be 100 percent trustful with someone they know from television.”
Although Daines has run many more ads than Gillan, he stresses the same kind of message about his campaign.
“We have had a chance to travel to all 56 counties in this state,” he said, “and I have had the chance to sit around with cups of coffee and having conversations about what matters to Montanans.”
But campaign strategy is where the similarities between Gillan and Daines end.
For Daines, his message to voters is he will fight to rein in an out-of-control national government that has created a sense of “uncertainty” in the country.
“We don’t know what the tax code is going to be like next year,” he said. “You talk to the farmers, the ranchers, our small community bankers, and boy, one of the No. 1 issues is the regulations coming out of Washington.”
Gillan is campaigning on a pledge to reduce the partisanship in Washington while advocating what she calls Montana’s culture of “helping your neighbor.” This includes proposing government investment in key services like education and health care.
She argues that Daines’ support of the budget proposal put forward by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan would benefit the wealthy at the expense of critical services like Medicare and Social Security.
“In Montana we are all about fairness — everyone is always willing to pitch in and do their part, whether it’s helping a neighbor or solving a community problem,” she said. “I don’t feel that the Ryan budget does that at all. It basically places the burden on hard-working families, senior citizens and the middle class. And you know what? Most of Montanans are not millionaires.”
Daines said his belief in cutting the size of government is about being fair to future generations.
“We have four kids, two in college and two in high school, and they are going to inherit this debt,” he said. “And it is up to this generation to start moving in a path back to fiscal sanity, and fiscal sustainability.”
The role of experience
Daines, who is 50 and vice president at the high-tech company RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, said he formed many of his political opinions based on what he learned in the business world.
“Twenty-eight years in business and you understand the importance of problem solving and the importance of efficiency, because if you don’t become efficient, you don’t run a business well, and you are out of business. And I think some of those principles could be applied to leadership in Washington,” he said.
Although Gillan, 60, stresses her experience running a training program at MSU Billings, she points to her 17 years in the state Legislature as what best qualifies her for Congress. On the trail, she cites passage of her legislation to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism through insurance companies as proof that she can work with lawmakers from both parties.
“Simply put, people know my reputation precedes me,” she said. “I’ll stand up to anyone if it’s going to hurt Montana.”
Both campaigns have focused heavily on how and when the reach of the federal government ought to affect Montanans.
The centerpieces of Daines’ campaign are scaling back regulations that hurt job growth and fighting large federal programs like the Affordable Care Act, which aims to expand the number of Americans with health insurance.
Gillan, who supports the new health care law, said Daines opposes government action that could help thousands of Montanans access health insurance but supports expanding the reach of the federal government into controversial social issues.
“I’ve always been a long term supporter of a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “If you are going to talk about less government then we want less government in making those very personal and private decisions.”
On the issue of abortion, Daines said his position is not about the role of government but about core values.
“I think this gets back to the issue of defending the rights of those who can’t defend themselves and that’s a fundamental value we had in our Constitution - that we defend the rights of the individual,” he said.
Voters will weigh these two starkly different visions of the role of the federal government on Nov. 6, deciding between Daines’ vision of reduced spending and smaller deficits or Gillian’s call to support education and job training.