Our Revolution, the political organization that emerged in the aftermath of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, endorsed James Thompson and Rob Quist, the Democratic candidates in the upcoming special elections in Kansas and Montana.
This will be an early test on whether the movement Bernie Sanders inspired in 2016 will turn out to elect other candidates in elections where he is not on the ballot. President Obama found out in 2010, 2014 and 2016 that it wasn’t a sure thing to turn out his supporters during elections when he wasn’t a candidate. Quist supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, and Thompson said he was inspired to run for office by Sanders. Sanders won both states in the 2016 Democratic primaries. If Quist or Thompson can win these seats in red states, Sanders would probably become an even bigger kingmaker in Democratic politics, especially if he is getting political and ideological allies elected to Congress. Wins or narrow losses in these races would also hit the brakes on any fears of #DemExit becoming anything more serious than a social media hashtag, because progressives would show signs of being committed to staying within (and, perhaps in the long term, taking over) the Democratic Party.
Our Revolution has not endorsed candidates in the Georgia, South Carolina, or California special elections presumably because all three races are in the middle of ongoing primaries. Quist and Thompson have already locked up their respective parties’ nominations. The Kansas general election is the first special election of the year, scheduled for April 11. The Montana general election is set for May 25.
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.”
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.”