The race between Rob Quist and Greg Gianforte is heating up, like one of those dreams where you wake up to find that your hair is on fire and you are still, in fact, stuck in a dream. Maybe the word I'm looking for is "nightmare." With only three weeks until the special election, both candidates are now running advertisements in which they shoot things that represent ideas.
The Gianforte campaign has released a spot called "Grab," in which that scary voice that warns of things in political advertisements speaks over the image of a computer monitor sitting incongruously on a desk in a grassy field. "Rob Quist wants to establish a national gun registry," the voice says. "Your name, your address, your guns on a big government computer." Then Gianforte shoots the computer.
It's a nuanced message, but I think I can grasp it. Gianforte believes guns are good, while the computers that might be used to register them are bad. As a real Montanan, he loves guns and hates computers. That's why he keeps his computer out in a field—so when he gets frustrated and shoots it, he doesn't mess up his beautiful house. It's probably a log mansion, actually, or some kind of sod home. The ad doesn't say, but you can bet that whatever structure Gianforte lives in when he's not out in the field shooting office equipment, it's built from Montana values.
But whose values could be more Montanan than Quist's? As a grown man wearing a cowboy hat, Quist also loves values and shooting electrical representations of their opposites. In a spot titled "Defend," he articulates a strong counterargument to Gianforte's position.
"For generations, this old rifle has protected my family's ranch," Quist says as he loads what might be a Winchester .30-30. I'm not from Montana, so I wouldn't know. "I won't stand by while a millionaire from New Jersey tries to attack my Montana values," Quist says. Then, after a brief and thrilling image of him pointing the rifle directly at the camera, he shoots a television playing an NRA ad attacking Quist.
Again, the message is subtle. But it seems Quist disagrees with the opposition's characterization of his position re: the desirability of a federal gun registry, and he wishes to correct the record by shooting a hole in it. He responds to the ad in terms Montanans will understand: self-conscious redneck violence. For two men who disagree with each other, Quist and Gianforte have produced remarkably similar spots. But there are contrasts.
Where Quist uses a rifle, Gianforte uses a shotgun. The latter looks like a 12 gauge with a Monte Carlo stock—although I must again caution you that my grandparents never owned a ranch. While Gianforte shoots a flat-screen Dell display, Quist shoots a tube TV. It was probably the same old TV that's been in his family for generations, pissing them off. And while Quist wears a gray cotton work shirt and jacket with jeans and a giant belt buckle, Gianforte wears a green cotton work shirt and camo vest with jeans and a giant belt buckle.
They both look like what they are: two guys who dressed up to shoot televisions for television. Gianforte is an electrical engineer. Quist is a musician. Both of them belong in this state as much as any other Montanan, but they are not the hard-bitten cowboys we like to imagine ourselves to be. They are fortunate professionals selected by their parties to pander to us, and they are doing an uninspired job.
I sure wish one of them would shoot wage stagnation or the Legislature's inability to agree on an infrastructure bill. Maybe Quist could shoot creeping restrictions on a woman's right to choose, and Gianforte could invent a kind of gun that shoots healthy lunches into poor kids' mouths. Perhaps, in a rare moment of agreement, they could both shoot sex trafficking. Or they could shoot some object embodying the idea that Montanans are interested in substantive political thought—like a book, or a bust of Adlai Stevenson or something.
That seems to be the one issue on which the Gianforte and Quist campaigns concur. Voters will sit up and bark for guns, phony swagger and whatever other rootin', tootin' marketin' a team of political consultants with 10 minutes and a whiteboard can think up. As much as I like to watch my betters shoot things, I call hackwork. The similarity of these two ads is a testament to how few ideas either party has produced since the last, uninspiring election.
Granted, that was only six months ago. I'm tired of campaigns, and I didn't even work on any of them. But the state's political tacticians have got to be able to come up with something better than this. We've got three weeks left. There has to be a meaningful idea around here somewhere. "We both love guns and are from here" ain't it.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the performance of redneck identity at combatblog.net.