As we were the first to report, it seems increasingly likely that Whitney Williams is going to run for governor, with her announcement likely to drop in the first or second week of October after candidates report their fundraising.
And I am very nervous about the prospect of her run.
It’s not that Williams doesn’t have an impressive resume. She does. It’s not that a progressive woman can’t get elected governor in Montana. One can. It’s not that I don’t think she’d make an excellent governor. I suspect she would.
I’m nervous because we cannot afford to elect Greg Gianforte governor, and I’m just not sure that Williams can defeat him.
While Williams would certainly bring formidable experience to a race for governor, she blunts some of the most effective criticism Democrats used against Greg Gianforte in his previous bid for governor and brings baggage that will be a challenge in a race for governor:
- Williams is deeply connected to the Clintons. from her first job in politics working for the Clintons to her continued public support for Hillary and Bill Clinton, Williams will be subject to an onslaught of Gianforte smears. While Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win a Presidential race in Montana, that came under extraordinary circumstances (Perot) and before a generation-long campaign to smear the family, and the association will be damaging in the gubernatorial race.
- Williams and Democrats will be hard to tag Gianforte as someone who isn’t from Montana. While she certainly has deep ties to the state, her business was operating in Seattle until at least 2017, and Republicans will deploy the same attacks Democrats have used against “Jersey” Greg Gianforte against her.
- Perversely, Williams’s own success and the trappings of it will be used against her in a race against Gianforte. A resonant, powerful narrative Democrats will have to continue to deploy against Greg Gianforte is that he is simply too interested in protecting the wealthiest to ever care about the poorest among us. A candidate with Williams personal wealth may just not be the ideal candidate to deliver that message effectively.
In a race against Greg Gianforte for governor, those will be difficult hurdles to overcome, but I do think Williams could find herself a more effective and more successful candidate in another race, the race against Steve Daines for the U.S. Senate.
With no disrespect intended towards the current Democratic candidates who’ve announced for Senate and no intention to suggest they couldn’t win a primary, Williams would be a more formidable candidate against Daines than against Gianforte.
There are a number of reasons a Williams run for the Senate makes more sense. Other than her impressive resume, her greatest strength in a race could well be her ability to tap a vast network of potential donors. Candidates running for governor in Montana can only take a maximum donation of $2,720, but a candidate for the US Senate can raise twice that amount. While both races will be expensive, the national profile and access to donors that Williams will enjoy in a Senate race will dwarf the support she’d see in a bid for governor.
And as the 2018 Tester-Rosendale throwdown demonstrated, there are a lot of motivated progressives in the country eager to fund credible candidates who can restore the Senate to Democratic control. Williams could conceivably outraise Daines in the race, something few challengers can say in races against a Senate incumbent.
Perhaps even more significant is the simple fact that Williams can run a winnable race if she pursues the Senate. The race for governor in Montana is almost always about local issues, not national politics. One need only look at the failed bid by Greg Gianforte in 2016 to tie himself to national winds like anti-migrant sentiment to see that Montanans look to candidates for governor as people who understand and can solve local issues. While a gubernatorial race would limit Williams’s ability to effectively use her resume to persuade voters, a Senate race would be a different animal entirely.
Effective Senate campaigns focus on national concerns: the 2018 race between Senator Tester and Matt Rosendale was about the administration of the VA, the composition of the Supreme Court, and the presidency of Donald Trump. Given her incredible depth of experience in both national and international affairs, Williams could run the kind of race that would play to her strengths and put someone like Steve Daines on the defensive early and often. Her work in national politics, international aid, and philanthropy make her a natural candidate for federal office and will offer clear juxtaposition with Steve Daines’s record of outsourcing jobs to China.
Williams will certainly face attacks in a bid for the Senate, but her strengths are better suited to a run there than one for governor.
If the calls for Steve Bullock to abandon his bid for President to run for the Senate have taught us anything, it’s that candidates run for the offices they think they can win, and I wouldn’t presume to abandon her potential bid for governor. That being said, I hope she’ll consider a bid for the Senate, where she can more effectively leverage her experience and advantages she’d bring to the table.
The stakes cannot be higher. While Democrats have warned for over a decade that Montana is one gubernatorial loss away from becoming Idaho, the prospect of Greg Gianforte signing legislation written by the radicals in the Montana Legislature deserves the hyperbole.
Our public schools, our public lands, our public safety, our reproductive rights, and our future as a two-party state could well depend on the outcome of the 2020 race for governor, and I hope any candidate entering it understands just how high the stakes are.