Dems hunt for a win in Montana special election

Dems hunt for a win in Montana special election
© Courtesy / Wikimedia Commons

The special election spotlight shifted west this week after a hard-fought race in Georgia. Now all eyes are on Montana, where a popular local folk musician will square off against a wealthy businessman to fill the state’s lone congressional district.

After unexpectedly strong turnout from Democrats in Kansas and Georgia special elections that nevertheless failed to flip the seats, the pressure is on in Montana as outside money pours in and attack ads flood the airwaves ahead of the May 25 vote for the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Democrats hope to turn their recent momentum into a tangible upset in Big Sky Country, where they’re competing on what’s thought to be safe GOP turf. They’re trying to draw contrasts between musician Rob Quist, who sports a cowboy hat and strums a banjo, and his GOP opponent: Greg Gianforte, a millionaire tech entrepreneur from New Jersey who failed to win the governor’s mansion in 2016.

“I think one of [Quist’s] appeals is that he looks like what we think Montanans are supposed to look like — wearing his cowboy hat 100 percent of the time,” said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana.

“He talks about how he’s spent his whole life traveling the state and representing Montana through his music and poetry. This is all an attempt to draw a distinction with Gianforte.”

Quist has seen a surge in momentum as the race earns national attention, raising $2 million in six weeks and racking up endorsements from progressives. Quist’s most notable endorsement came from Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersTexas man indicted over allegations he created fraudulent campaign PACs Overnight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour MORE (I-Vt.), who plans to campaign with him next month.

His campaign got off to a rocky start after reports about his 16-year history of financial troubles, including unpaid debts and property taxes. Quist blamed the debts on medical costs, arguing that they help him better understand the issues of voters with their own money struggles. 

The recent special elections have become nationalized, but Quist’s campaign argued that Montana’s race is unique and will be decided by voters who are independent-minded. An aide said Quist has made inroads in more rural, GOP-leanings areas, which he’ll need to pull off an upset.

But Quist remains the underdog. While the race has seen little polling, Republicans have held the seat for two decades, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpPentagon update to missile defense doctrine will explore space-base technologies, lasers to counter threats Giuliani: 'I never said there was no collusion' between the Trump campaign and Russia Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles MORE carried the state by 20 points. But political observers point to Democrats who have won statewide, including Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party MORE, who faces his own tough reelection in 2018; and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who immediately endorsed Quist. 

“If Quist is going to have any chance of pulling the upset here, he’s going to need to count on being able to harness that progressive energy,” Saldin said. “It’s an uphill climb for Quist no doubt about it, but this is a state where Democrats can win statewide.”

National Democrats have started helping Quist. After taking heat for only intervening in the Kansas race at the last minute, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is making a six-figure investment in Montana.

“In Kansas, I think [the DCCC] wish they got involved earlier there. I think they see Montana as an incredible opportunity, and I’m glad to see they’re investing,” said Shannon Jackson, executive director of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution.

Our Revolution has endorsed Quist and made a large push with calls every Thursday and Saturday as well as fundraising and social media efforts.

Republicans, on the other hand, wasted no time getting involved right out the gate.

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A day after Quist’s nomination in March, Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, launched a $700,000 ad campaign targeting him, recently adding another $800,000 to its investment in the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) advertising arm also purchased $148,000 in television ads.

Gianforte lost last year’s governor’s race by 4 points after spending $5 million of his own money, so the special election presents a chance for a comeback. This time around, Gianforte goes into May’s election as the favorite and likely won’t need to self-fund, thanks to the cash infusion from GOP groups.

He’s playing up his Trump bona fides to appeal to his base, a move strategists say is all he needs to claim victory. Montana Republicans have also taken a page out of the party’s playbook from earlier special elections this year and linked him to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

“The decision we face in this race is does Montana want somebody who is going to work with Donald Trump for Montana, or somebody who is going to side with Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders?” Gianforte told The Hill. 

Donald Trump Jr., a regular hunter and outdoorsman, hit the campaign trail with Gianforte on Friday at several rallies. The president has yet to weigh in, though he’s typically waited until a few days before an election to help GOP candidates with robocalls— and some tweets. 

When asked about the potential for Trump to help his campaign, Gianforte said, “there may be some announcements in the future as well.”

Democrats are recycling attacks from the governor’s race, which centered around painting Gianforte as a carpetbagger who’s out of place in Montana. The millionaire used to live in New Jersey, although he’s lived in Montana for two decades where he raised his family and built his company.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a vote-changing issue. It is definitely something people talk about, but I don’t think on its own it’s a very potent issue,” a Republican source in Montana said.

Gianforte has also still taken heat for suing the state in 2009 to prevent people from fishing in a stream near his property. The dispute touches on access to lands, a huge issue in the state and one that Democrats plan to keep using as a wedge issue.

Political observers and state reporters have noted that Gianforte has kept a lower profile in this campaign. But with all of the viral videos and coming out of town hall exchanges between Republican lawmakers and angry constituents, strategists believe it’s a practical strategy, especially since he already has high name recognition from his gubernatorial campaign.

“It is smart for Gianforte not to have negative photo-ops,” said Jeremy Johnson, a professor at Carroll College in Helena. “I think that has driven Gianforte to have unscheduled appearances to keep a low profile.”

Despite their differences, Gianforte and Quist have both played up their support for gun rights in dueling campaign ads.

Quist initially took criticism after suggesting in January that he supported registering assault weapons.

Since then, Quist has vowed to protect Second Amendment rights. In his gun ad, he uses his family’s rifle to shoot a TV playing an attack ad.

Gianforte countered that with an ad of his own, claiming that Quist wants to create a national gun registry that would store personal information on a “big government computer.” The ad then shows Gianforte using a firearm to shatter a computer screen.

Colorful ads aside, the race will likely come down to turnout, with both parties feeling confident they can mobilize their bases.

Special elections usually generate lower turnout, with the election’s scheduling on the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend set to reduce turnout even further. Plus, the reliably Democratic students at two of the largest colleges in Montana will already be on summer vacation.

“It’s going to be a base election,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, adding that the race comes down to “the party that turns out their base and grabs those independents.”