HELENA - The candidates in the Democratic primary for Montana's eastern congressional district include an advocate against human trafficking, a rookie progressive, and an unpicked stand-in for state Sen. Mark Sweeney, who died in early May.
Whichever Democrat wins the primary will face the Republican candidate in the November general election. While incumbent and first-term Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale does have primary challengers, he started the race with a huge financial advantage.
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The eastern congressional district includes the cities of Billings, Glendive, Great Falls, Helena and Miles City. The new District 2 has a 22-percentage-point lean for Republicans, 60% to 38% among its current voter make up, according to Dave's Redistricting, which analyzes congressional districts.
Rosendale was elected as Montana’s only congressman in 2020 and is running for re-election in District 2. The state gained an additional House district this year after 30 years as a single, statewide district.
Sweeney’s death upended the Democratic primary contest. A Democrat from Phillipsburg, Sweeney was the best-funded Democratic candidate with some of the most experience, having sat two terms in the state legislature.
Sweeney’s name will remain on the ballot as elections officials finalized the list of candidate names about a month before his death. If Sweeney’s name gets the most votes in the primary, the Montana Democratic Party will hold a nominating convention to select a candidate for the general election in November.
The other two candidates are former Billings City Councilmember Penny Ronning and Billings resident Skylar Williams.
Ronning was a former CASA advocate and co-founded the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force. Because of her work for the task force, she’s already helped create policy.
“I’m one of the only candidates that has written and passed legislation at the municipal level, the state level, and helped influence and pass legislation at the federal level,” Ronning said.
If elected, Ronning wants to use that experience to get federal resources to Montana. As a member of Billings City Council, Ronning said she saw how dependent municipalities are on federal grant funding.
“But the reality is not every community has the resources that Billings has to apply for those federal grants," Ronning said. "So traveling around congressional district two, I’ve been able to see just how many rural communities are struggling. We have rural populations that are suffering. And the resources that they have are incredibly limited. But there are federal resources for those rural communities.”
Ronning’s opponent, Williams, works as a security guard in Billings. His three big issues are climate change, healthcare and education. Williams said he doesn’t need to have served a specific number of years in office to be a good representative. He is a member of the working class and he believes he can best represent their interests, he said.
“Democrats are not against the working party, we don’t work against the working party," Williams said. "They constantly speak about raising taxes on the richest Americans to help the working party, the working class. A lot of the richest people don’t pay anything in federal taxes, so we are left with the bill.”
Williams is a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe and the eastern district’s Native American voting age population is 9.1%, which is a third larger than in the western district, according to Dave's Redistricting. Given the historical lack of representation of Native Americans in the U.S. Congress, Williams said if he was elected he would be a champion for tribal nations in eastern Montana.
“That whole debacle with the Dakota Access Pipeline," Williams said. "You see the tribes in North Dakota who were staunchly against that pipeline. They were pleading with everyone, 'Please do not make this pipeline, do not construct it, it will contaminate our water.' And they did not care. And if you had Native American voices in congress at that time, they were against that pipeline. Our own congressman wants to advocate for the return of that pipeline.”
Williams would be a voice against building something like the Dakota Access Pipeline in Montana, he said.