Congressional Candidates Stump in the Flathead as Election Nears

Gianforte, Quist and Wicks all pay the Flathead Valley visits in the waning days before the special House election

As the clock winds down to the May 25 special election to fill Montana’s lone House seat, the Flathead Valley has recently been bristling with candidate activity amid a flurry of attack ads, news reports, record campaign spending, and potentially compromising revelations.

Democratic candidate Rob Quist, whose campaign has been buffeted by recent reports detailing a trail of debt due largely to health issues stemming from a botched surgery, as well as discrepancies in his income tax reporting and news that he failed to report rental earnings on a barn on his property, received a boost this weekend from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who kicked off a series of statewide campaign stops with Rob Quist in Kalispell on May 15.

A native Montanan from Cut Bank, Quist is running in a red state he hopes will bend to his populist message and appeal as a “real Montanan.”

Tester addressed Quist’s financial issues head on, saying that the candidate’s experience gives him a greater ability to identify with ordinary Americans and think outside the blinding beltway bubble of Washington, D.C.

Rob Quist seals an envelope containing his ballot as he votes early for the Montana special election on May 2, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Meanwhile, Republican candidate and wealthy tech entrepreneur Greg Gianforte’s campaign has been beset with problems of its own after national reports revealed that he’s espoused mixed messages on the Republican health care bill.

According to the New York Times, Gianforte maneuvered away from his stock talking point on health care in a telephone conversation with a group of donors, telling them that he was thankful Congress was beginning to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

He previously told voters and media organizations that he wants to repeal and replace Obamacare with a plan that reduces premiums and maintains protections for those with preexisting conditions, a proposal that’s easier said than done.

The candidates are running to replace Republican Ryan Zinke, the Whitefish native who left Congress to become interior secretary under the Trump administration, thus leaving the state’s at-large seat vacant and setting a rare special election in motion.

Recent polling shows the House race between Quist and Gianforte has narrowed to the single digits, with Gianforte still leading. Enjoying strong name recognition following last year’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, political analysts say it’s not surprising that Gianforte enjoyed an early lead.

Quist, a musician who lives on a ranch in Creston, entered the unusually time-crunched campaign with a fair amount of name recognition of his own, having co-founded the Mission Mountain Wood Band to gain local and national attention.

Quist has been encouraging Montanans to vote early.

The tightening race has drawn a who’s-who of Washington politicians and Hollywood celebrities to the Treasure State, where the campaign has become the most expensive in state history. Spending and fund-raising for the three-month campaign has surpassed $12 million.

For Gianforte, Donald Trump, Jr., the president’s eldest son, has paid multiple visits to campaign on the Republican’s behalf, while Vice President Mike Pence also turned up. In Bigfork on May 15, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader from California, attended a fundraising event at a private residence. He’s also received support from state Attorney General Tim Fox, who is the subject of speculation about challenging Tester in 2018.

In addition to the endorsement from Tester, Quist has received support from former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, while actress Alyssa Milano hosted a get-out-the-vote drive during which she drove voters to the polling stations in Bozeman and Missoula.

On May 20, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, will launch a two-day barnstorming tour of the state, appearing alongside Quist at events in Missoula, Butte, Billings, and Bozeman. On May 15, Quist addressed members of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks, a rancher from Inverness, rounds out the ballot, and although he’s considered a long shot to win the race, his strong performance at last month’s sole debate for the seat may earn him an uptick in support that could potentially shift the balance.

Wicks visited the Flathead Valley on May 13, hosting an “Ugly Truck Contest” in Whitefish that refers to his closing statement at last month’s debate, during which he referred go Gianforte as a “luxury car” that is “only comfortable when he’s parked at the country club,” compared Quist to a half-ton pickup truck that regularly breaks down, and likening his own candidacy to a “work truck” equipped to dispatch a job well done in Congress.

At the time the Beacon went to print, half of the absentee ballots for the election had been returned statewide, while turnout for registered voters was just over 25 percent.

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