Quist’s Quest: Can A Prairie Progressive Beat the Cult of Trumpism?

What will it mean if Rob Quist can’t seal the deal?

The Democratic candidate in the May 25 special election to fill the at-large Congressional district vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been heralded as the sort of candidate that Democrats must turn to in order to regain lost ground. Quist certainly has impeccable progressive credentials, plenty of charisma and impressive fundraising prowess–but what if that’s not enough, and the power of right-wing partisanship breaks him?

A week from now, we may look back and conclude that Quist was doomed in part by the Democratic Party not doing enough to aid his campaign, while the GOP worked its elephant’s tail off to help their candidate, Trump acolyte Greg Gianforte:

The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s] steely special-election strategy may be impervious to the passions of the grassroots. But after top Democratic officials in Montana called out the party – on the front page of The New York Times – for its failure to engage, the committee began to rethink the Quist race. In an April 20th story titled “Moved by Georgia, Democrats in Montana Say, It’s Our Turn,” Gov. [Steve] Bullock was direct: “National folks should be coming in here. It is a winnable race.” [Later that] day, the DCCC transferred $200,000 to the Montana party, which the Quist camp could tap to boost its own ad budget. The DCCC’s orientation to Montana appeared to change more dramatically still in the aftermath of meetings among [DNC Chair] Perez, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and [Ben Ray] Luján, chair of the DCCC. The three men strategized on coordinating Democratic efforts – “to make sure we’re not bowling alone,” Perez told me, “that we’re taking advantage of our synergies.”

The Montana seat is an obvious case where an investment in a hot congressional race today could make the defense of [Democratic Senator Jon] Tester’s Senate seat an easier lift in 2018. On May 3rd, the DCCC opened its wallet in earnest, pouring another $400,000 into the Quist race. The DNC sent a staffer to Montana to work on digital strategy, and the national party is also paying for a social-media campaign targeting likely voters with reminders to return their absentee ballots.

That’s not to say that Montana is suddenly a fair fight. Compared to national Republicans and their Super PAC allies, the Democrats are weeks late and millions short. And the GOP continues to escalate – deploying Vice President Pence to stump with Gianforte in Billings.

Another reason why Quist may lose is that a critical mass of Montana voters may be buying the slop that Republicans are selling about the Democrat:

During my April visit, the national GOP’s anti-Quist ad blitz is all but inescapable. I can’t turn on the news without seeing attacks funded by the NRCC, the Congressional Leadership Fund – a Super PAC controlled by Paul Ryan and billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson – or the NRA Political Victory Fund. Over dark music, one ad intones that Quist is “out of tune” with Montana, and tries to hang the Democrats’ minority House leader like a millstone around his neck. “Rob Quist talks folky, but his record is more Nancy Pelosi than Montana.” Other ads dredge up Quist’s past tax troubles. The NRA accuses Quist of backing a gun registry – fighting words in Montana.

The unanswered attacks are taking a toll, as I learn over breakfast in downtown Great Falls, a city of 60,000 astride the Missouri River. Brian’s Top Notch Cafe is a no-frills diner festooned with Evel Knievel memorabilia where everybody says, “You betcha.” One customer, in a maroon baseball cap, tells me he just flew in from wintering in Arizona and hasn’t been following the election. But when I mention Quist’s name, he pipes in with a perfect paraphrase of the GOP attack: “Oh, you mean that out-of-touch liberal with San Francisco values?” A Gianforte supporter who sports a gray mustache says he can’t back “that Quist” because he’s a “two-bit musician” and “a deadbeat,” adding, “He doesn’t pay his taxes. He’s living off Social Security. How’s he supposed to take care of the rest of us?”

Gianforte claims to be a devout Christian, but his actual religion is Trumpism–and if he can get his fellow worshippers to the polls on Thursday while Democrats prove unable to mobilize their base, the result will indicate that Republicans are, frighteningly, in a far stronger position than commonly assumed in the wake of the Trump scandals.

Even if Quist pulls it off, there can be no excuse for the Democratic Party taking its sweet time to get involved in this race. The Trumpists have declared holy war on all things Democratic, and every election is a new front in that war. History really is written by the winners, and you’d figure Democrats would do whatever it takes to prevent the likes of Greg Gianforte from controlling the content of the textbooks.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.