Rally for Rob Quist turns into Sanders campaign revival as national party eyes race for congressional seat amid narrowing of Republican Greg Gianfortes lead
Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate in the special election in Montana, is passionate about public lands and protecting the Affordable Care Act. But when it comes to the Republican president whose national approval rating is under 40%, he doesnt have anything to say.
At a raucous Sunday morning rally at Montana State University, both special guest Bernie Sanders and Quist, a folk singer turned first-time candidate in the race to fill the House of Representatives seat left open by interior secretary Ryan Zinke, avoided mention of Donald Trump. Only once, in passing, was the president named, as Sanders made a simple attack on the Republican party.
It was a calculated effort in a state that has a Democratic governor and a Democratic senator but that Trump won by more than 20 points in November.
Polling in the race gives the advantage to Republican Greg Gianforte, who has recently hitched his wagon to Trump, although his lead has narrowed in recent weeks.
Montana leans Republican. In Bozeman, a rapidly gentrifying college town that has drawn retirees from both coasts, the crowd for Quists rally did not. The event felt more like an attempt to recruit volunteers for another Sanders presidential campaign. Many attendees wore Sanders merchandise. There were hats featuring the Vermont senators silhouette and the slogan Hindsight 2020. There were T-shirts with an illustration of Sanders riding a unicorn in front of an American flag and a rainbow, with the slogan Bernie Is Magical. Sanders, the featured speaker, did nothing to dispel such sentiment as he repeated familiar attacks from the 2016 stump, attacking the millionaires and the billionaires.
When Quist focused on his campaign messages, vowing to defend public land and access to healthcare, he got scattered applause. Anyone else here have preexisting conditions? he asked, drawing only scattered whoops in response.
In contrast, Sanders hit red meat applause lines on nearly every topic, from the estate tax to Planned Parenthood, receiving lusty cheers in a state he won narrowly in the primary, a day after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.
Some present cited Sanders as their reason for attending. Abby Douglas of Bozeman, who was wearing a Bernie Is Magical shirt, described the two men as people she could support, in contrast to almost the rest of the Democratic party. Douglas said she was more of a Bernie fan and expressed surprise that someone as progressive as Quist was running.
I heard one of his radio ads, she said, [and thought], Hes running in Montana, really?
The event was less about persuading people to support Quist than simply recruiting existing supporters to help. Outside the venue, volunteers went up and down a long, snaking line, putting wristbands on attendees: neon yellow for those who had already voted, orange for those who were registered but hadnt yet voted, and red for those who werent yet registered at all.
In a state with heavy absentee voting, where more than 217,000 ballots have already been returned, this was a way for the Quist campaign to narrow its targets. Those who had voted were still important. Volunteers hounded attendees to sign up to knock on doors and make phone calls. Clipboards were waiting at the exits for those ready to devote their Sunday afternoon. At times the event felt like a center-left convention. Volunteers from Planned Parenthood roamed. One attendee walked around with a Democratic Socialists of America flag on his back.
Quist faces an uphill fight. His opponent, Gianforte, has built a significant advantage on the airwaves with nearly $5m in outside money. National Democrats were slow to take the race seriously and have only become involved in recent days.
The question is whether Quist and his supporters can take advantage of discontent with Republican healthcare reform as well as Trumps falling approval ratings. If they can, there could yet be an upset in Big Sky Country.