HELENA — Montana Democrats brought in one of their national party’s rising stars to headline their annual dinner, but the hundreds who gathered Saturday wanted to hear more from one of their own: musician Rob Quist, who must convince fellow Democrats that he can win the state’s only congressional seat and help national Democrats push back against the Republican tide.
He will have to prevail in the May 25 special election against Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman entrepreneur and former gubernatorial candidate with deep pockets and a determination to win public office.
“This House seat should not be his consolation prize,” Quist said of his Republican opponent, in a speech meant to energize the 1,200 Democrats from across the expansive state meeting for the Mansfield Metcalf Celebration at the Lewis and Clark County fairgrounds.
To win votes, Quist has been traveling the state just as he did while touring with his musical group, the Mission Mountain Wood Band.
“We know that Montanans talking to Montanans is what will determine this election,” Quist said in his address.
In his address, he railed against the Republican plan that would dismantle key elements of the Affordable Care Act.
“The right to a healthy and productive life should not bankrupt families,” he said. “I understand personally what it’s like to worry about mounting health care bills.”
A Gianforte spokesman called Quist out of touch with the values of Montanans.
“Montanans want a strong voice in Congress who will stand up for the Second Amendment, enforce our immigration laws, and provide the military with the resources they need to defeat ISIS,” said the spokesman, Shane Scanlon. “That’s why Greg Gianforte’s message is resonating with Montanans, because they know he will always be on Montana’s side.”
Quist, running for his first political office, beat two experienced legislators and several others to win the right to represent his party in an election to fill the seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
While Quist is trying to energize his base, the night’s keynote speaker, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, is helping the party capitalize on the growing distress among Democrats over Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“We are the party of we, not the party of me … the party of inclusion,” said Booker, adding that the party should not be overly fixated on President Donald Trump, but should instead focused on the party’s core values.
“It’s not about Republicans,” he said. “It’s about us.”
Booker is a first-term Democrat and is already being spoken about by some as a future presidential contender.
Montana’s May balloting and another special congressional election in Kansas next month are among the first tests for national Democrats. Outside campaign analysts consider the contests safely Republican, and Quist has scant time to dispel that thinking.
Sen. Jon Tester dismissed the notion that the Montana race would be a referendum on national Democrats.
In his speech, Tester urged the crowd to rally behind Quist. He then reminded supporters that he has his own re-election next year.
It remains to be seen how much national organizations, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will invest in Montana’s congressional race. Quist acknowledged that the calculation will depend on whether he can convince party leaders that he can mount a serious campaign.
Rank-and-file Democrats wonder, too.
“There’s only a small amount of time, and I don’t know if he can do it and how much he has,” said Macrae Peeples from Missoula.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, an outside group seeking to keep Republican control of the U.S. House, has already begun bombarding the television airwaves to help Gianforte tamp down Quist’s chances of turning the race into a competitive one.
“I will meet him anytime and anyplace, and we’ll see who’s out of tune with Montana Politics,” Quist said in an interview.
Quist said he’s raised at least $350,000 and that contributions continue to pour in.