BILLINGS — There are less than 40 days to go until Montana's primary election and the outcome in the Democratic governor's race is anyone's guess.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is facing a rigorous challenge from political newcomer Whitney Williams of Missoula, but the impact of the coronavirus on Montana has forced politics to the sidelines.
Both Democratic hopefuls agree: It's been a campaign season like no other.
"When the pandemic landed in Montana, we were in the middle of a 56-county campaign swing," said Williams, who founded a firm that aids philanthropic efforts worldwide. "We're still doing the 56-county tour, but it's a virtual tour. So, we use Facebook, we do Facebook Live, we do Zoom, and we're picking up the phone talking to as many folks as we can."
Who could have possibly envisioned the day when the old tried and true "handshake with a voter" would be a thing of the past?
"I like doing that. I like getting around and traveling around the state listening and talking with people. And all of that's gone now," said Cooney. "And frankly it's not as fun, it's not as enjoyable, but we just have to adjust."
Ballots for Montana's first all-mail election will go out May 8, and they're due back on June 2.
The winner will face one of three Republicans in the primary: Congressman Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Tim Fox or state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell.
The new reality of COVID-19 is a game-changer for everyone, and Williams said it's also driven home the necessity of making sure all Montanans have access to broadband internet.
"This moment has really uncovered this great need we have to close the digital divide," said Williams. "Broadband is essential infrastructure and I believe we have to start treating it like that, just like roads and sewers. About thirty percent of Montanans are underserved by broadband, now more than ever, it's showing us how important it is to make sure we all can stay connected."
Cooney said his focus has not been on the campaign, but rather working side by side with Gov. Steve Bullock helping manage and craft Montana's response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As for what comes next, that's the huge challenge awaiting the state's next governor.
"One of the jobs of the next governor is going be bringing us out of the coronavirus economy, and the challenges it's leaving us," said Cooney. "I think the next governor is going to have to be very well prepared to pick the ball up and get running with it immediately on day 1, and I would argue that puts me in a pretty strong position."
Williams acknowledged that tough times are ahead as Montana and the nation rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic. But as with all challenges, there is also opportunity.
"There is a sort of a fear factor, but I think there is also an optimism about what will a moment like this teach us," Williams said. "We have a chance to rebuild in the way we want our society to look, right? So, I think that we have real opportunities here to make sure we're doing everything that we can."
As Montana's primary election draws closer, neither campaign is sure what to expect from voters. Will the mail-in election increase or hurt voter turnout, and will the pandemic affect whom voters support? Regardless, both Williams and Cooney believe they're the candidate with the best chance of winning in November.
"Well, I can win because first of all, (I) think we're right on the issues," said Cooney. "I have a record of fighting for healthcare, Medicaid expansion, making sure that 100,000 Montanans have access to health care. Whereas the other side has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they've voted to gut Medicaid. I think there are some real distinctions between us."
Williams, on the other hand, believes voters are looking for new leaders during this time of crisis and is confident she will emerge in June with the momentum needed to win in November.
"At the end of the day, my hope is that people will say, we need a new generation of leadership," said Williams. "We need someone who is tough enough to stand up to what is going to be an unfolding crisis ahead. We need new ideas and new thinking around how we problem solve in government."
Williams has picked Culbertson farmer Buzz Mattelin as her running mate for lieutenant governor, while Cooney's running mate is Montana House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls.