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Democratic Congressional Debate

Grant Kier of Missoula speaks at the Democratic Congressional Debate at the Babcock Theatre hosted by the MSU Billings College Democrats Thursday.

The fundraising gap continues to widen between Montana Democrats vying to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Financial frontrunners Grant Kier and John Heenan have both surpassed $500,000 in contributions, more than double the donations of their next closest opponent, Kathleen Williams.

Kier, a former Five Valleys Land Trust director of Missoula, leads all Democrats with $666,679 in net contributions for the election cycle to date. Heenan, a Billings attorney, has $566,573 in net contributions, but has also added $250,000 of his own money to the pot, driving his receipts to $817,048.

Williams, a former state legislator and associated director of Bozeman's Western Landowners Alliance, has raised $217,684.

Williams' campaign manager, Andrew Markoff, called the idea of a two-candidate horse race between Kier and Heenan "ridiculous."

"She's building momentum," Markoff said. "She's going to close this campaign by talking to Montanans where they live."

The remaining field of candidates trailed significantly. Lynda Moss, a former Montana legislator from Billings, reported $87,069 in net contributions. Moss has also loaned her campaign $30,274. Jared Pettinato, an attorney currently residing in Bozeman, reported $56,268 in net contributions for the election cycle. There was no record for John Meyer, a Bozeman attorney who registered his candidacy with the state March 12, the last possible day.

The six candidates are vying to be the first Democratic U.S. representative from Montana since Pat Williams in the mid-1990s. They have been appearing in forums across the state and are scheduled for a debate in Helena in early May.

Keir leads all Democratic candidates for fundraising in the first quarter of the year, with $217,873. Heenan's donations totaled $185,620, while Williams' contributions of $142,650 were good enough for third and nearly tripled her contributions for the election cycle.

The biggest contributions for the first quarter of the year belonged to Gianforte, whose $703,367 in net contributions was nearly $100,000 more than the quarterly contributions to the entire Democratic field.

Gianforte reported $1.2 million for the election cycle with most of the money unspent.

It was the first time Gianforte started to pull away from the Democratic field. In January, the tech millionaire who lives in Bozeman reported just $56,000 more than Heenan in total receipts, which included a $250,000 personal loan to his campaign.

That gives Gianforte, who was elected to the seat last year in a special election, a significant financial advantage against the eventual Democratic nominee, who will have to spend much of the money being raised now to win the June 5 primary election.

"Is it worrisome? Yes," Jake Brown said, campaign manager for Kier. "We're going to be spending a lot of our resources in the next five to six weeks. We're keenly aware that Greg Gianforte is going to have $1 million-plus by the time we win the primary."

The Democratic candidates with the most cash on hand were Kier, $432,730, Heenan, $385,619, and Williams, $139,864.

Absentee ballots go out May 11.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.