Montana voters will reshape the Montana political landscape next Tuesday when the race for governor is narrowed from five candidates down to the final two.
Just days away from the votes being tallied, the outcome for the Democratic nomination between Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and political newcomer Whitney Williams is anyone's guess.
"The Democrats have to choose between Mike Cooney, who has essentially done every job in state government, has a wealth of experience, who's associated with the postive COVID response of the governor, versus Whitney Williams, who created a business outside the state, and brings an outsider perspective," said Dr. David Parker, head of the political science department at Montana State University.
The Cooney-Williams face-off represents a classic power struggle among Montana Democrats. Organized labor is backing Cooney, while Williams has former Gov. Brian Schweitzer in her corner.
''Elections are always about the future, not the past," said Schweitzer, speaking to MTN News from his home on Georgetown Lake this week. "Voters need to be thinking about what its going to be like next year, five, 10 years from now. Whitney has the background to be a great governor."
Parker is not surprised that Schweitzer, who served two terms from 2005 to 2013, likes what he sees in Whitney Williams.
"It doesn't surprise me that Gov. Schweitzer endorsed her, because that's how he came to prominence in politics- as an outsider," said Parker.
Also backing Williams is former Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. Now into her third year as Superintendent of Schools in Seattle, Juneau believes Whitney's worldwide business experience will play well with voters in November, against GOP front runner Greg Gianforte.
"Her business acumen, her family lineage, her fundraising ability, she'll be able to go toe-to-toe with Gianforte," said Juneau. "She brings a different portfolio, she can absolutely win."
Gianforte, Montana's lone member of Congress, faces two challengers in his race: state Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski.
Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, told MTN News he will be shocked if Williams wins. He envisions Cooney winning by maybe as much as five points.
Feaver's 23,000-member union, the state's largest, represents a diverse workforce that includes educators, state and local government workers, law enforcement and nurses.
"Labor unions like politicians who are a known commodity," said Feaver. "I've worked with Mike Cooney for 40 years. We asked him to run, we support him, our endorsement is all about Mike."
The Williams-Cooney race also means a house divided for former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.
Baucus' wife, Melodee Hanes, is a big Williams supporter. On the other hand, the former senator has endorsed Cooney, who worked for Baucus back in the late 70s and early 80s.
"It's time we have a qualified woman lead this state, and Whitney is that person," said Hanes. In an op-ed this month, Hanes wrote, "her parents set her leadership style, she gets politics, she's tough. She’s the new generation of leadership Montana needs."
Williams is the daughter of two giant of Montana Democratic politics: former Congressman Pat Williams and former Montana Senate majority leader.
Sen. Baucus' endorsement of Cooney appeared in The Missoulian newspaper in late February.
"Mike knows what it takes not only to win, but to govern once he gets there," wrote Baucus. "When Mike governs, he brings people together, gets things done, and never compromises on his values."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for next Tuesday's winner will be to unify Democrats in their fight to keep control of Montana's governor's office. It's a streak that has now reached 16 straight years.