HELENA – Bozeman business executive Steve Daines won the Republican primary Tuesday night in the race for Montana’s open U.S. House seat, while state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings staked out a solid lead in the seven-person field in the Democratic primary.
With more than half the precincts partially reporting, Daines led the three-way Republican primary with 71.5 percent of the vote, beating out Eric Brosten of Helena, who had 18 percent, and Vincent Melkus of Hardin, who had 10 percent.
Gillan led the Democratic primary with 31 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, followed by state Rep. Franke Wilmer of Bozeman at 19 percent.
The winner of the two primaries will face off this fall for Montana’s only U.S. House seat, which is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican who’s running against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Libertarian David Kaiser of Victor also will be on the fall ballot in the House race.
Daines, at an election party in Missoula Tuesday night, said he’s anticipating a “positive, upbeat, issue-oriented campaign” against the Democratic nominee, and that he’ll continue talking about a “pro-growth agenda and how we get this economy moving forward again in America and also in Montana.”
“I’m looking forward to talking about the issues that we know Montanans care most about, and that’s going to be jobs and the economy and the huge debt our federal government has accumulated the last several years,” he said.
Daines, whose campaign slogan is “more jobs, less government,” also emerges from the primary with about $750,000 in campaign funds, while his Democratic opponents will have less than $100,000.
Gillan, reached in Billings Tuesday night, said she felt good about the campaign going into election day, because she’d spent many days and hours talking with and listening to “literally tens of thousands of voters.”
“We’ll wait for all of the votes to come in, but I like the way things have been going,” she said.
Gillan, who represents the Billings Heights in the Legislature, said Montanans want someone who will be a strong voice for them in Congress who believes in their priorities.
“Certainly that’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I’ll continue to do if I get elected to the U.S. House,” she said.
Gillan also said she’s not daunted by Daines’ lead in campaign funds: “In Montana, the money doesn’t determine who’s going to win.”
Whitefish attorney and entrepreneur Diane Smith was running third in the Democratic primary at 15 percent, Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier was fourth at 14 percent, followed by Billings real estate broker Sam Rankin at 12 percent, Hardin farmer and tribal construction manager Jason Ward at 5.5 percent and Helena attorney Rob Stutz at 3 percent.
Daines, who’s been campaigning for 18 months, faced only token opposition from Brosten, an engineer who talked mostly about the Star Wars missile defense system, and Melkus, a U.S. Marines Corps veteran and college student.
Gillan, 60, has been a state senator since 2005 and a state representative from 1997-2004. She grew up in near Oakland, Calif., and moved to Montana in 1992. Gillan, along with Wilmer, raced more campaign funds than the other contenders and was considered one of the front-runners in the race.
Wilmer, 61, has been a state representative since 2007. She grew up in Virginia and West Virginia and moved to Montana in 1991. Strohmaier, 47, a historian for a private consulting firm in Missoula, has been on the Missoula City Council since 2006.
Rankin, Smith, Stutz and Ward ran relatively low-key campaigns, and only Rankin had run a statewide race before, in 2010 for the same office.
Daines, 49, hasn’t served in public office but ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for lieutenant governor, as a running mate to Republican nominee then-state Sen. Roy Brown of Billings. The duo lost to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.
This spring, Daines left his vice president job at RightNow Technologies in Bozeman to concentrate on the U.S. House campaign.
Brosten and Melkus, two political unknowns, barely campaigned, not meeting the $5,000 threshold required to file a finance report.