By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is pinning his third campaign in two years on Montana residents being better off economically since President Donald Trump took office and that the voters will give him some of the credit.
Gianforte has tied his political fortunes to Trump as he seeks his first full term in Montana's only House seat. He won a special election last year to serve the remainder of Ryan Zinke's term after Zinke resigned to become Interior Department secretary.
Gianforte has had to fend off renewed criticism over his assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the day before that special election. His Democratic opponent, Kathleen Williams, has made it a campaign issue, and Trump praised him for it during a recent rally.
The entrepreneur-turned-politician initially gave a tepid endorsement of the president during a failed campaign for governor in the same 2016 Montana election that Trump won in a landslide, then found himself on the winning side in the 2017 special election when he became a full-throated Trump supporter.
"Thank God Donald Trump is our president," Gianforte said to cheers during a recent rally in East Helena. "You know why we're doing this. In America, we've always believed that if you work hard, follow the rules and persevere, you can make a better life for yourself. That's the American dream. "
Gianforte has centered his campaign on emphasizing his 16 months in office and telling voters that he's working hand in hand with the president.
He's cited his trips on Air Force One and visits to the Oval Office. His speeches are peppered with "we" and "us" when he talks about the economy, as in, "We've gotten the economy going," and "We now have more jobs open in the country than people looking for work," as he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Williams, a former state lawmaker and water specialist for state government and a nonprofit organization, said she doesn't believe Gianforte's time in office gives him an advantage.
"He's hiding behind his incumbency. Well — he's barely an incumbent," she told the AP. "He hasn't done that much. So, I don't think it's a disadvantage at all."
Williams was the only woman running in a crowded Democratic primary in June, beating out two better-funded men in a year that has seen a record number of women running for office.
She is seeking to become the first Democrat to hold the House seat since Pat Williams left in 1997. She also would be the first woman to hold the office since Jeannette Rankin left in 1943.
Libertarian Elinor Swanson is also on the ballot.
Williams, 57, has centered her campaign on the themes of improving health care and access to it, along with protecting the environment and Montana's outdoor heritage. In a dig at Trump and Gianforte, she also says restoring civility and integrity to Congress and restoring America's place in the world are among her top priorities.
Gianforte, 57, is a technology entrepreneur who turned to politics after selling his software company, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2011. He says his top issues are undoing Obama-era regulations in a bid to promote economic growth, improving community safety by addressing the methamphetamine crisis, protecting gun rights and increasing access to public lands.
Williams has steadily been attacking Gianforte's record. In October, she stepped up those attacks to include the assault against Jacobs last year.
Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for throwing the reporter to the ground when he tried to ask the candidate a question.
Williams released an ad with audio of the assault taken from Jacobs' recorder on the same day that Trump praised Gianforte for the attack, thrusting it back into the spotlight in the final weeks of the campaign.
It received additional attention when Jacobs' lawyer sent Gianforte's lawyer a letter accusing the congressman of lying about the attack and mischaracterizing the terms of a settlement.
Gianforte also ratcheted up his political attacks. His campaign has sent out daily statements that call Williams "extreme" on various issues and released an ad tying her to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom Williams said she wouldn't support if elected.
Gianforte says Williams has misrepresented his record, especially when accusing him of not meeting with constituents. He cites telephone conferences with them and regular radio appearances as examples of his accessibility.
"I think it's a false narrative being promoted by my opponent to try and create a wedge, and frankly, it's not true," he said.
Williams said Gianforte has distorted her positions, falsely saying she opposes gun rights, and that Montana voters will be able to see through him.
"Apparently, he's desperate for power," Williams said of the new attacks. "Montanans value truth and integrity and honesty. It's not happening in his campaign."
This story has been updated to correct the age of Gianforte and Williams to 57, not 58.
For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections:

More From KMMS-KPRK 1450 AM