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Though it’s just the fall of 2019, the way the political world works now is that it’s already a busy season for the primary election that will be held in 226 days.

Candidates are crisscrossing the state, attending campaign events. And at places where Democratic governor hopefuls tend to show up, voters are often surprised to see them not just tolerating each other, but apparently getting along like old pals.

“People find it to be completely novel and it dumbfounds people that Mike and I will stand together during a political rally and we’ll be laughing and joking and taking pictures together,” said Great Falls state Rep. Casey Schreiner about Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney last week.

So far, no one in that group is classifying each other as an "opponent."

“We want the same job. We’re applying for the same job. We just have different skill sets that we think are the best to get there, and we’re all friends,” Schreiner said.

So in a primary where everyone gets along and comes from the same basic set of values shared by the Democratic Party, how is a candidate to separate themselves from the pack? And do it without attacking the others? And can that harmony hold out for the next seven and a half months?

The Democrats, in something else they agree on, say it will all work out.

It’s no surprise the governor’s race has drawn ample candidates from several parties. There are three Republican candidates in that less-harmonious primary: U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski. Libertarian Ron Vandevender is also running.

Government experience

Cooney, by far the fundraising leader on the Democrats' side, pulling in $250,000 in his first reported quarter, is running on a lifetime of work in the public sector, both as an elected official and state employee. He's been Secretary of State, president of the state Senate and a House member, too, and deputy commissioner at the state Department of Labor, among many other resume lines.

“It really is going to be up to the voter to make those determinations. I’m running because I’ve spent my adult life in public service. I've been around long enough that people know how I operate, they know how I work with people. I'm kind of an open book,” Cooney said. “ … I bring a lot of experience, both in the legislative and the executive branch. I've worked in state government. I've been a bureaucrat, and I say that very proudly. That's not a nasty thing.”

Business background

Whitney Williams, who announced her candidacy after the most recent fundraising period, comes to the race having run a successful consulting firm. Though it’s her first run for office, she is no political newcomer. Her parents are Carol Williams, the first woman to hold a majority leader position in the state Senate and founder of Carol's List, which supports Democratic women candidates; and Pat Williams, who served as Montana's representative in the U.S. House from 1979-1997.

“I’m the only executive, the only person who has built a company and made a payroll and understands the businesses which are the backbone of this state,” Williams said. “I think that perspective and that skill set is going to lend itself really well to both a really healthy campaign and an executive in the governor’s office."

Education advocate

Schreiner, who served four terms in the state House and was minority leader last session, has raised about $70,000 so far. He said being a former teacher, a special needs parent and still carrying $40,000 in student loans between himself and his wife gives him a perspective in the race that helps him connect with voters.

“I think I'm the only person in this race that can actually make the statement that we're still living the everyday Montana experience,” said Schreiner, who lost his job as a science teacher due to budget cuts and was a work-based learning director for the Department of Labor before stepping away from that job to campaign.

“It should be OK for the person in the governor’s office to be making decisions from that perspective, and that’s what separates us — accomplishment and perspective."

Climate change focus

Neill, a former state lawmaker and news magazine publisher whose fundraising is far behind the others at about $1,000, said her experience as a state legislator showed her just how important it is to keep a Democrat in the governor's office, and that in her campaign she's going to focus on highlighting ways to address climate change.

"For the most part, my campaign is about elevating the awareness of different issues, climate change being primarily the issue I’m attempting to raise awareness about as a candidate," Neill said.

Similar values

It’s fair to say that, all being Democrats, the primary candidates share many of the same views on policies and priorities. Affordable health care and access to medical services, a robust public education system and protecting public lands were all top issues the candidates said they wanted to address if elected.

"At their core, if you strip away the slogans or the logos or even the personalities, the Venn diagram of the Democrats that are running for governor overlap on a lot of the issues," said Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana. "What they're trying to do right now is test their pitch to voters."

As the current No. 2 in the state, Cooney is less apt to be critical of how Montana is doing now, but acknowledges there’s room for improvement.

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“We’ve got to keep working on where we go. We have to keep making progress in a lot of areas because that’s the way we will continue to grow and prosper and make opportunities for people in Montana,” Cooney said. “We’ve got to protect those things that we have and I very clearly understand those things we need to protect and how we protect them.”

Schreiner wants to see a mix of a governor playing defense, but also going on offense. He often ties policy points back to his family's experience, sharing the story of how his father died because he couldn't afford necessary medication and that, with two children born prematurely and with autism, access to prekindergarten changed the trajectory of his family's future.

“Frankly, I don't think you're going to get it from a governor that has never been a teacher, and we haven't had a governor that’s actually spent time in the classroom and dealt with high-risk students, sat in IEP (individualized education program) meetings, has sat in them as a parent himself,” Schreiner said. “That’s how we're going to build out our policies, based on the experiences that I've had as a classroom teacher.”

Williams said her business background brings a different way of looking at problems.

“I do think that Montanans, lots and lots of us, are business owners in this state and I think that people do see a skill set that’s a problem-solving skill set in folks who have had to make payroll and who have had businesses. That is just different than what some of the other candidates have," Williams said.

Neill said she also runs a business that has shaped her views on issues that affect Montanans.

Cooney, Schreiner and Neill have released several policy proposals — notable from Cooney is legislation he'd push to allow for the safe importation of prescription drugs from Canada to address prescription drug prices, and Schreiner has a plan to make two-year colleges tuition-free.

At the time of the interview for this story, Williams was only 10 days into her campaign, and as such hasn’t had much time to do the policy announcements or campaign pledges that Schreiner, Cooney and Neill have.

“We’ll have a lot more to say about specific policy platforms and initiatives and ideas, so folks will get that from all of us,” Williams said. “I think some of those things will set us apart.

While candidates navigate how to show voters where they differ from each other, they seem to be getting along much better than their GOP counterparts in the primary race. Fox has been sharply critical of Gianforte running for governor instead of another term in the U.S. House, and Olszewski said he's been plagued by rumors that he only wants to be lieutenant governor.

Amicable foes

While Schreiner and Cooney have posed for countless photos together, Neill and Williams have grabbed coffee in Livingston to talk about their campaigns and priorities.

"Regardless of who wins the primary, they're going to be taking all of these ideas with them," Neill said.

A healthy primary, all the Democrats said, should ensure the strongest candidate emerges to face the Republican they all agree will most likely be Gianforte.

“Having the candidate who can beat Greg Gianforte, I think that’s our best choice,” Williams said. 

By the time Bullock leaves office, Democrats will have held the governorship for 16 years. That length of time could be as big of a player in the general election as any specific candidate, said Banville, the political analyst.

"In some ways it's probably going to be the central argument about this campaign, because the (Republican-dominated) Legislature's not changing. The question is do voters want to go in that (single-party control) direction and embrace the policies the Legislature tried to put forward that the Democratic governors have shot down, whether it's abortion restrictions to less Medicaid expansion," Banville said.

Schreiner agreed with the other candidates that more important than any single Democrat's bid is having a Democrat who can take on Gianforte and a Republican Party that's as committed as possible to taking back the governor's seat.

“Quite frankly there’s a lot on the line. There’s so much on the line that could go away. We just fought like hell for so many things that could go away if the wrong person was elected governor,” Schreiner said. “And whoever comes out of the Democratic primary, they're going to be up against a big battle. … Any one of us on the Democratic primary side will be a better governor."

Strong primaries, they agree, make for strong candidates.

“You don’t need to be at each other’s throats,” Cooney said. “We are all running for this office for all the right reasons. They want to make a positive change in Montana and keep Montana on the right track. And anybody who feels a sense of entitlement and politics is is wrong. Even though I've done all the things that I've done, I don't believe that gives me any license to believe that I should be the only one in this race. I think gives people a good choice.”

The first challenge to that harmony came last week, when Cooney announced a pledge that asked candidates to disavow almost all outside money in financing their campaigns. He said he hadn't spoken to the other candidates about it before holding a press conference, but did send them a copy of the pledge.

Though Cooney said the pledge wasn't about keeping Williams from tapping into a national fundraising network she has access through from her consulting firm connections and that he didn't think the pledge would divide candidates, it did cause a splash.

Williams' campaign manager told the Associated Press it was a "media stunt," while Schreiner's campaign didn't say whether it would abide it by the proposal. Neill, far behind everyone who has reported campaign finance totals, told the Associated Press she'd agree to the pledge.

"If someone decides not to sign it or if everybody doesn't decide to sign it, then it's an issue," Cooney said. "It doesn't mean we can't continue to run a harmonious and friendly campaign and talk about the issues. This is one of the issues I think we're going to be talking about in the campaign."

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