BILLINGS, Mont. — Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat, had a problem. Big Sky Rising, the local progressive group — one of many that grew out of the National Women’s March — had filled a room for his speech.
But the room didn’t have a sound system for Quist, a 69-year-old folk musician, to strum and sing his campaign theme song.
“Let me just recite a poem for you about how I feel about our public lands,” Quist said. “Her gown is luscious green when she attends the annual springtime ball. And she fancies orange and gold and harvest moon in the fall. Her wild and natural beauty — it will take away your breath. Oh, but take her for granted? It could easily mean your death.”
It had been just 48 hours since a surprisingly close special election in Kansas kicked off Republican hand-wringing about forfeiting Montana’s May 25 special election to replace Ryan Zinke (R), now President Trump’s interior secretary.
The Democratic candidate in Montana is a mustachioed 6-foot-3 poet who appears everywhere — churches, fundraisers, and television interviews — in a white cowboy hat and black Ariat boots.
That cowboy-poet has raised $1.3 million so far and was competitive with a self-funding Republican contender, Greg Gianforte, who jumped into the race after a near miss 2016 gubernatorial run. Trump easily won Montana, but Democrats still compete strongly for statewide offices.
Republicans, flush with cash but facing unbridled Democratic enthusiasm, are taking Quist a bit more seriously. On Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee began a $273,000 digital and TV ad buy, accusing Quist of singing in “harmony” with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The GOP-allied Congressional Leadership Fund is committing at least $1 million to the race, though Executive Director Corey Bliss said last week that Quist had no chance to win.
“Rob Quist is such a pathetic candidate that we almost feel bad running ads against him,” Bliss said. “At the end of the day he’ll lose by double-digits.”
Montana is one of five special elections this year for open House seats — four of them vacated when Trump plucked Republican lawmakers to become part of his administration. So far, Democrats are doing better than anticipated in conservative areas — including Kansas, where the Democrat came within seven points last Tuesday of winning a district that Trump nabbed by 27 points.
But while the Georgia race is seen as a test for the “rising electorate” of minority voters and highly educated white voters, the Montana race is a test for populism. Quist, who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, portrays Gianforte as a plutocrat who will work only for his class. It’s the argument Democrats failed to stick to Trump, and one they want to see working in the places where working-class white voters bolted their party.
Gianforte, who has been criticized for holding few public events, plans to welcome Donald Trump Jr. — an avid hunter who argued for Zinke at Interior — to the state next week. The first son will swing into Montana for rallies and fundraisers, $25 a pop.
Quist, who won the Democratic nomination at a January convention, professes to be thrilled with the GOP attention. On Thursday, at two public events in Billings, he told Big Sky Rising and a separate room of union members that he could “smell the fear” coming from the right.
“One of my top priorities in Congress will be to stop these corporate interests from dictating policy,” Quist told pipe fitters at their Billings union hall. “When I was younger, there was a graph that showed the distribution of wealth across the classes. Now, if you look at the same graph, it’s flat across the bottom, and when you get to the super-rich, they have so much of the wealth that it flies off the page.”
Soft-spoken left-wing populism like that helped Quist become the nominee. Our Revolution, the group founded by Sanders, has endorsed Quist. In an interview last week, Sanders said he was looking for an opportunity to stump for him.
“If you look up Montana in the dictionary, you see a picture of Rob Quist,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Committee’s recruitment program.
“Rob Quist’s as Montana as Montana can get,” said the state’s governor, Steve Bullock (D), who defeated Gianforte, Quist’s opponent, just five months ago. “He’s been in all these small communities. He’s working hard. He reflects our values.”
The implication is that none of those kinds of words apply to Gianforte. Crisp and confident, the Republican moved to Montana 24 years ago and grew a software company, RightNow Technologies, out of Bozeman. (He was 33, having sold his first company for $10 million.) In Quist’s TV ads, he argues that “there are enough millionaires in Congress” and brands Gianforte as an East Coast arriviste.
At the same time, Montanans elected a New York real estate businessman to the presidency — a leap of faith that informs how Gianforte now campaigns. In his TV ads, he promises to “drain the swamp” and stick it to political elites.
On Thursday, as Quist stumped in Billings, Gianforte met with local business and political leaders seven hours away in Kalispell in conservative Flathead County.
Gianforte, wearing a flag-pinned blazer over a checked shirt, shared the gospel of free markets. “We got here with a series of steps over a period of time, and I think that’s how we dig ourselves out,” he said. “I am encouraged that we have President Trump in the White House because for the first time we have an opportunity to effect change. And I want to be a part of it because I don’t want to see our country squander it.”
In an interview, Gianforte paused when asked why outside groups were investing in the race. “I do believe — and we saw this recently with the health-care conversation that went on — for the administration to advance their agenda, they need the votes in the House,” he said. “National groups have gotten involved because they want to help. I’ll always be on Montana’s side, but I’m going to help Donald Trump advance his agenda.”
At a Quist fundraiser last week, attendees grabbed lawn signs using the same stylized signature as his album cover as they left. They said there was energy they didn’t feel when Hillary Clinton was running for president.
“It’s an opportunity to kick the Republicans in the butt,” said Steve Griswold, 67, a retiree from Wisconsin.
Becky Weed, a 57-year-old sheep rancher, pointed out that the event was less than a mile from Gianforte’s home. Democrats cut into the Republican’s support by publicizing his 2009 legal battle to stop public access to the part of a stream that ran through his property.
“I’m immersed in the ranch culture, and people I know generally vote Republican,” Weed said. “But they’re willing to go for something different, especially when you’ve got public lands at stake.”
The Republican plan is to brand Quist as a liberal in cowboy clothing, more Willie Nelson than Hank Williams Jr. Its doomsday weapon is an interview Quist gave to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. After talking about his guns and his luck as a hunter, he mused that “assault” weapons, no good for hunting, might need to be registered.
“They’re only meant to kill people,” he said, “so maybe there should be some legislation to register those types of things. You register your car to drive, why not register guns?”
It was the gaffe of a novice candidate, and Republicans pounced. The NRCC’s first ad tells voters that Quist wants a “national gun registry.” The National Rifle Association is expected to swing into the race with the same message. On the stump, Gianforte never misses a swing at the gun issue. “I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment — he believes in gun registration,” he said in Kalispell. The next day, he warned a Republican crowd in Missoula that “registration is the first step toward confiscation.”
Quist said in an interview that he’d been ripped out of context.
“I was talking about fully automatic assault rifles,” he said. “I was taught that if it takes you more than one shot to bring big game down, you shouldn’t be in the woods.”
Quist advised anyone campaigning for him to point out the gun attack was coming from special interests. There were guns in the Quist home, he said, that had been there longer than Gianforte had been in Montana.
“All these sports groups know this is a smokescreen,” Quist said. “The number one reason that people no longer hunt or fish is loss of access to public lands.”
Quist was more relaxed when it came to attacks on his finances. It was true, he said, that he’d faced $15,000 tax liens and settled in 2016. But he has a multimillionaire to defeat.
“I probably should have declared bankruptcy,” he said. “But that’s not the Montana way.”
Margaret Grayson in Missoula contributed to this report.