HELENA, Mont. – Rob Quist, a political novice from Flathead Valley, won the Montana Democratic Party’s nomination to run for the state’s at-large seat in the House of Representatives. Quist, a musician, will face off against the Montana Republican Party’s nominee in a special election scheduled for May 25 to fill the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior last week.
“I really feel like I’ve been representing the state of Montana all my life, through my music,” Quist told reporters after his victory. “Instead of playing music and providing entertainment for people, we’ll be giving speeches and hopefully trying to energize people.”
“I really feel that with my connection to the people of the state of Montana, and they recognize that I’m someone that stood up for Montana values all my life,” he added. “I really don’t feel like I’m the underdog here.”
Former Rep. Pat Williams agreed with that assessment, saying “Rob Quist has a bit of an upper hand because he’s known throughout Montana, particularly in eastern Montana, small towns, and the bigger cities. They know him, so he’s going to do well.”
Dawn Gandalf, Vice-Chair of the Sanders County Central Committee, addressed the issue of the party not reaching out to rural communities and voters, which was the subject of at least one meeting during the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Atlanta last week. “To have the state start getting involved in recognizing rural communities, it’s been a problem in our state because we are such a huge state,” she explained. “All the attention and funds have gone to the seven or eight top cities, urban cities, and nothing to the outlying. So on the outlying communities, you have people who are voting, but they’re neglected and there’s no support.”
She cites Sanders County – a rural county in the northwest part of the state – as an example, saying it has become “a stranglehold of the Tea Party.” According to the Montana Secretary of State, Donald Trump won this county by a whopping 73-21 margin.
Quist won the race on the fourth and final ballot 90-69 in a head-to-head matchup with State Rep. Amanda Curtis (D-Billings). Curtis became the party’s nominee in the 2014 Senate race against Steve Daines, after interim Senator John Walsh dropped out of the race because of a plagiarism scandal. Quist’s victory was announced by Williams, who was the last Democrat to represent Montana in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1997.
“I feel better about Democrats’ chances now than I’ve had in quite a number of years,” Williams said during an interview. “In my opinion, this is going to be a very good race for Democrats.”
One early sign of energy among the Democratic base in the state was the Women’s March in Helena on January 21. Gandalf said that while organizers originally estimated a turnout of 1,200, the actual number who came to the march was 10,000.
That energy may not necessarily be limited to Montana. Dan West, a former Obama administration political appointee at NASA who ran for the party’s nomination in this race and dropped out after the second ballot, felt optimistic about this race getting national attention and support from Democrats outside the state. “The national party is eyeing [this special election]. There’s no other races happening right now to funnel money away,” he said during an interview. West added that he would send out an email to his Obama alumni network to urge them to support Quist in this race.
During his closing speech before delegates began voting, Quist offered unequivocal defenses of the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, public lands, and public education. Despite the fierce opposition to Republican-controlled Washington that has been building within the Democratic base nationwide, Quist is running on a platform of state issues that matter to voters, not hardline opposition or obstructionism. “He’s not running against Paul Ryan or Donald Trump,” Gallatin County Vice-Chair Elizabeth Marum said. “He’s running to put everyday average Montanans at the forefront of his optics, and we have a lot of needs.”
The Montana Republican Party is holding its nominating convention tomorrow. Several Democrats said they expect businessman Greg Gianforte – the GOP nominee in the 2016 gubernatorial race – to win the nomination. Gianforte lost his race in the same election that saw Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke win statewide by 20 and 16 points last November.
When asked what Quist and the Montana Democratic Party need to do to win, Williams said, “What Democrats have to do to win is continue to talk to seniors, workers, and Indian tribal people. With that combination, and a couple of other things thrown in, they used to win, and they can again.”