Montana race for governor heating up between Cooney and Williams

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Whitney Williams

(KPAX) BILLINGS — With two weeks to go until Montana’s June 2 primary, it’s down to crunch time for the various campaigns.

Topping the Democratic primary is the race for the party’s nomination for governor between Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams.

So far, the Cooney-Williams race has been rather tame, but it looks like that’s about to change. This week, Emily’s List Super PAC, Women VOTE, dropped nearly $700,000 into the race in support of Williams. Observers take that as a sign the race is tightening.

Eric Feaver, with the Montana Public Employees Association (MPEA) supports Cooney, who he believes has the best chance of winning in November against likely GOP nominee Greg Gianforte.

“If Williams wins, she’ll face a big hill to climb come November,” said Feaver.

Aaron Murphy, executive director with the Montana League of Conservation Voters told MTN News that his organization views both Williams and Cooney as “conservation champions.”

While Murphy is backing Williams, Montana Conservation Voters has not made an endorsement in the race.

“Every time this state has been traveling in the right direction, Mike Cooney as a public servant, has been in the cockpit,” said Murphy. “His record is very strong and he brings a lot of experience to the table. ”

Murphy noted that Williams served as the conservation group’s vice chairwoman before stepping down to run for governor.

“Whitney also has a strong conservation record and brings a different perspective from a business point of view,” Murphy said. “So, both of these folks are very strong contenders when it comes to the conservation side of things, offering voters a clear choice in a suspected matchup with Gianforte.”

Veteran Democratic lawmaker Dave Wanzenreid, a past candidate for governor himself, is backing Cooney. Wanzenreid believes if Williams wins, her ties to Hillary Clinton could hurt the chance of Democrats retaining the governor’s chair.

“It could likely become a major distraction and a focal point of the race in November,” said Wanzenreid. “It could turn into a referendum on the Clintons.”

As for the impact of outside spending in the race, both Feaver and Wanzenreid feel this week’s big media buy from Super PAC Women Vote could be too late. More than 120,000 Montanans have voted and mailed back their ballots as of May 19.

“Nearly a third of voters have already voted,” said Feaver. “It could have an impact on undecided voters, but people are voting right now.”