The vibe in Caras Park last week bore little resemblance to the Woodstockian Aber Day Keggers that helped propel the Mission Mountain Wood Band to statewide renown back in the 1970s. No beer, for starters. And no music, either. But the odds are good that more than a few of the 100 or so locals gathered in the park knew Rob Quist's name from one of those old concerts. For others, Quist's appearance was their first exposure to the man looking to wrest Montana's lone congressional seat from the Republican Party.
Quist spent the bulk of his 10-minute speech pledging to protect Montana's public lands from the greedy machinations of the transfer movement. He spent the rest of his time taking shots at his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, as an out-of-touch millionaire with troubling associations. He resurrected the stream access scandal that plagued Gianforte's 2016 gubernatorial bid and encouraged his audience to "tell [Gianforte] to take a hike."
"He spent millions of dollars trying to buy this past election, and that didn't work," Quist said between cheers from supporters. "This House seat should not be his consolation prize."
Quist's presence—and his cowboy hat—loomed large at the event, as it has at similar rallies throughout the state. After the speech, people edged past one another to line up for a handshake and a quick chat. But turn on a television or trot over to YouTube and the race to replace Ryan Zinke seems tilted in the other direction. Within hours of Quist's nomination on March 5, the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund blanketed Montana airwaves with the first anti-Quist attack ad. Gianforte's second campaign spot went live on March 16, just three days after Quist's official campaign kickoff party. While Quist presses the flesh, Republicans have already invaded living rooms, bars and online ad spaces in every corner of the state.
So far, the national Democratic Party has done little if anything to correct the apparent imbalance. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which contributed several thousand dollars to John Lewis' 2014 House bid against Zinke, has yet to disclose a penny in expenditures in Montana. Federal Communications Commission records show no ad contracts from Quist's campaign or any Democratic allies. Meanwhile, the DCCC's mailing list has been soliciting donations to help fight the repeal of Obamacare and elect a Democrat in Georgia's special election. Multiple messages left with the DCCC asking when their presence might be felt in the Montana race went unanswered.
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
- According to his campaign, Rob Quist has raised more than $750,000 since early March. However, his race has yet to attract the support of national Democratic outfits like the DCCC.
"The fact that they, thus far anyway, haven't really waded into the Montana race can't be a good sign for the Quist campaign," says Lee Banville, a media ethics and politics professor at the University of Montana. "There's no way to spin that that it's good."
Nathan Kosted isn't particularly shocked that the national establishment hasn't showered Quist in cash and ads yet. Kosted worked as a campaigner for Sen. Jon Tester in 2006, and for President Obama in 2008, but his closest brushes with the DCCC came while managing Tyler Gernant's 2010 congressional challenge against then-incumbent Denny Rehberg, and later while working on Lewis' 2014 campaign. Based on past experience, Kosted speculates that the DCCC and others are more focused right now on Georgia's race to replace congressman-turned-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Hillary Clinton lost in that district by just one point last year, Kosted says, making it a logical seat for Democrats to target.
"They'll probably do some polling and see if the money is worth spending," he says of the DCCC's approach to Montana. "Because they just don't spend it on everything."
National Dems may not be rushing to Quist's aid, but Kosted notes another development that may work in the musician's favor. On March 9, the progressive news blog Daily Kos endorsed Quist, proclaiming the race a "perfect test ... of a populist outsider versus an out-of-touch one-percenter." Along with the endorsement, Daily Kos began an online fundraising campaign for Quist through the contribution website ActBlue. So far the effort has raised almost $90,000. It's the first time Daily Kos has gotten involved in a Montana race since 2006, when it and other leftist sites were credited with helping push Tester to victory over Conrad Burns.
The parallel isn't lost on Kosted.
"I definitely think [Quist] gets the same sort of populist feel that you got from Jon Tester," he says. "But when it comes to him as a person, it's more like the outsider feel of Brian Schweitzer, where he was never involved in politics until he was suddenly in office. I mean, [Schweitzer] had run for the Senate, but he still hadn't held any office. He was always running as the outsider."
At the end of the March 22 event in Caras Park, Quist took a few minutes to field questions from the Indy. We asked whether he expected to see much DCCC presence in the race. Quist shut the binder he'd periodically read from during his speech and answered with the appearance of candor. Once national Dems see the contributions he's been collecting and see the results of recent polls, he said, they'll realize his candidacy isn't such a long shot as it might initially seem.
"I would encourage them to get off the sidelines and get into the game," he said.