On Thursday, the anti-Trump movement will face it’s latest test — this one in Big Sky Country.
Rob Quist, a locally famous bluegrass musician running on the Democratic ticket, is facing off against a multimillionaire tech company founder, Republican Greg Gianforte, in the race for Montana’s sole House of Representatives seat, which was vacated in March when President Donald Trump tapped Ryan Zinke to be secretary of the interior.
Like two other special elections in conservative districts in Kansas and Georgia, the Montana race has drawn outsize national money and attention and is looking to be competitive.
It would be easy to write off Montana as infertile ground for the resistance — Trump swept the state by 20 points in November — but it has a strong independent streak and is currently led by a Democratic governor and senator.
Both parties are looking at the Montana race as a harbinger of what’s to come — particularly in predominantly white, rural communities.
“Win or lose, if Quist can make this race close, it will mean that a lot of at-risk Republicans will be highly vulnerable in next year’s midterms,” David Nir, political director of the liberal website Daily Kos, told Business Insider.
Like much of the country, Montana is suffering from unusually deep political divides. Don Pogreba, a high school teacher and liberal blogger from Helena, Montana, told Business Insider that he’s been surprised by the “nastiness” characterising state politics today.
“I saw the other day some people were protesting at the capital and they were holding up ‘traitor Tester’ signs and there was the speaker of the House in Montana, who’s a Republican, standing there with them,” Pogreba said, referring to Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester.
“I don’t think that you would have seen that 10 or 15 years ago,” he added.
But Pogreba said many Montanans harbour a “healthy degree of scepticism” of the new administration, which some saw as simply a more attractive alternative to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Montana is probably trending a little conservative from it’s purple status,” he said, “but I think that the margin Trump won by in November was to some extent driven by anti-Clinton sentiment more than huge enthusiasm for Trump.”
Responding to this anti-Clinton sentiment, Quist has welcomed Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who ran against Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders won the primary in Montana and retains widespread support among progressives, independents, and Republicans who lean libertarian. Signalling his distance from the Democratic establishment, Quist also turned down an offer from Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez to campaign with him.
Last weekend, Sanders flew out to stump with Quist, drawing energetic crowds across the state just days before the election.
Joel Fassbinder, the president of Montana’s union of professional firefighters, which endorsed Quist, said that many of his members, who were evenly split between Clinton and Trump last fall, appreciate Quist’s apparent independence.
“We’re not seeing him beholden to a party,” Fassbinder told Business Insider. “That really resonates with our membership, whether they’re Democrat or Republican. They just like somebody who’s gonna have spine and do the right thing.”
Rachel Huff-Doria, executive director of Forward Montana, told Business Insider that many of Montana’s young voters, over half of whom identify as independents, largely embrace “populist, progressive values.”
While Quist is framing himself as a party outsider, Gianforte has allied himself closely with the Trump administration — he campaigned across the state with Vice President Mike Pence, Zinke, and Donald Trump Jr., who also joined him on a prairie dog hunt.
“This election is about is Montana gonna send somebody who’s going to work with Donald Trump and be a strong voice for Montana?” Gianforte told Business Insider. “Or is Montana gonna send someone who’s gonna fall in lockstep behind Nancy Pelosi?”
While Trump’s backing will likely strengthen Gianforte’s support with the state’s Republican base, some argue the move has lost him votes among Trump sceptics.
“I don’t think a lot of people like the idea of the multi-millionaire from back east running for our seat,” Pogreba said. “And then to have another multi-millionaire from back east put on his brand new hunting clothes to go shoot prairie dogs — I don’t think it played very well.”
A ‘washed-up hippie’ vs. a ‘New Jersey multimillionaire’
Gianforte, who became a billionaire after selling his software company RightNow Technologies in 2011, has framed himself as a business-savvy engineer who will boost job growth in the state, while Quist has sold himself as a folksy son of a rancher who will protect average Montanans.
But to critics, Gianforte, 56, who lost the state’s gubernatorial race in 2016, is a power-hungry out-of-stater looking out for fellow millionaires.
To Gianforte’s camp, Quist is a know-nothing musician — a “washed-up hippie” — who will conform to the Democratic party line — “Nancy Pelosi in a cowboy hat,” Gianforte calls him.
“In all honesty, I think he’s more of a joke,” Jason Hodges, a Montana State University student and leader of the state’s college Republicans, said of Quist.
Quist has campaigned heavily on his pledge to protect the Affordable Care Act, which is popular across the state, particularly among rural and older communities, which would likely be hurt by the GOP’s American Health Care Act.
Sanders doubled down on the issue while campaigning with Quist last weekend.
“Rob and I are going to do everything we can to bury that horrific, disgusting piece of legislation that passed two weeks ago,” Sanders said of the AHCA, according to the Daily Beast.
Gianforte has done his best to drive a wedge between himself and Quist on what is perhaps the Democratic Party’s greatest weakness in the state — gun rights. He’s attacked a statement Quist made about establishing a gun registry for automatic weapons (which Quist has walked back), criticises the fact that he hasn’t bought a hunting or fishing licence in 16 years, and rarely misses an opportunity to bring up Quist’s F rating from the National Rifle Association.
Gianforte shot back with his own ad, in which he targets a computer showing the national gun registry he says Quist will advocate for.
Illustrating Montana’s deep attachment to the Second Amendment, the Libertarian candidate, Mark Wicks, has argued that the right to bear arms is “more important than the Constitution.”
Fassbinder said Quist needs to prove he’ll break from Democratic Party orthodoxy on gun issues in order to find widespread support among firefighters, who are targets of Republican “fearmongering.”
“Sometimes there are really tough conversations to be had in the firehouse, just to assure them that nobody’s coming after their guns,” Fassbinder said, adding, “Holy cow, they all thought Barack Obama was gonna take their guns away and he was the president who actually allowed them to be carried in national parks.”
Luckily for Quist, Democrats view a looser approach to gun control as a small price to pay to broaden appeal in a staunchly pro-gun state like Montana.
A tightening race
Judging by the amount of money national Republican groups have sent to Montana, it would seem they’re somewhat worried. As of mid-May, the Republican National Committee had spent $US4.7 million on the race — a remarkable amount for a House race in a state where advertising is cheap — while national Democratic groups have spent under $US1 million.
The DNC’s relatively meager financial support has frustrated many Democratic activists, which, in turn, has helped boost grassroots donations to Quist’s campaign, which raised $US2.4 million between the beginning of April and May 5 — far outpacing Gianforte, who raised $US1.6 million in the same period, $US1 million of which was a loan from the candidate.
Last week, Quist announced he had raised over $US5 million throughout the course of the campaign. The average donation sum to Quist’s campaign is $US25.
Voter turnout is a cause of concern, particularly for Democrats, whose attempt to pass a mail-in ballot bill, which would have allowed counties to collect ballots without physical polling stations, was crushed by Republicans in March.
While it’s unclear whether mail-in balloting would have helped Quist, the state Republican Party chairman wrote in an email prior to the vote that the bill would have advantaged Democrats who can “organise large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.”
Huff-Doria added that the special election’s timing — on a Thursday in the spring — is unusual, and that most college students in Montana are already on summer break — both factors that might depress voter turnout.
While a late-April poll conducted by Democrats showed Gianforte with 44% of the vote and Quist with 38%, more recent polling has Quist catching up with his opponent.
Sara Rinfret, a political science professor at the University of Montana, says Montana voters are hard to predict.
“It could go any way, that’s just how Montana is,” she said.
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