HELENA — U.S. House hopeful Greg Gianforte wasted no time attacking Democrat Rob Quist on Monday, even before the Montana GOP picked its candidate to go up against the popular musician in a special election to replace Ryan Zinke.
Zinke was recently sworn in as President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, prompting Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to call for a May 25 election for a replacement to serve the rest of Zinke’s term. On Sunday, Democrats selected as their candidate Rob Quist, a 69-year-old musician and poet who achieved notoriety as a singer and guitarist for the Mission Mountain Wood Band.
Delegates from Republican county central committees across the state planned to choose between Gianforte and six other candidates Monday night in Helena. The seven hopefuls began their day answering questions in a candidate forum in front of about 60 voting delegates and several dozen other observers in the Montana Capitol.
Gianforte, the apparent GOP front runner who recently lost an expensive governor’s race to incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock, used to the forum to paint Quist as both unqualified and too liberal in a state that voted strongly for Trump in November.
“We don’t need to send Nancy Pelosi a court musician who’s advocating for a socialized, one-payer medical system,” Gianforte said, referring to the U.S. House Minority leader.
Democrats chose Quist from eight candidates after four rounds of balloting. The 69-year-old musician and poet received a big boost when former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer endorsed him.
Republicans responded to Quist’s ascension quickly. A super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund announced it will spend $700,000 on an ad campaign to influence Montana’s May 25 special election. The first spot aired Monday, attacking Quist as too liberal and out of touch for Montana voters.
Montana Republicans followed suit, saying Quist backs “more of the same dead-end Democrat policies that Montana voters stood up against just a few months ago,” GOP chairman Jeff Essmann said in a statement.
Quist was not available for comment, spokeswoman Tina Olechowski said. The attacks make it clear “the D.C. establishment and Greg Gianforte are running scared of Rob Quist,” she said in a statement.
Gianforte has previously said he has received commitments from enough voting delegates to secure the GOP nomination. Another candidate, state Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, wants to upset Gianforte and take the nomination.
All seven candidates, who also include current and former state lawmakers and other political newcomers, pledged their support to Trump’s administration and to upholding the state party’s principles during the candidate forum.
Buttrey told the delegates that he is similar to Trump and Zinke, is electable and not an ideologue. He also underscored his and Zinke’s early support for the president.
“I was on the Trump train before it was cool to be on the Trump train,” Buttrey said.
Gianforte said it will be a tough race with Democrats using it to take on Trump.
“This race will be ground zero and the first official battle in the Democrats’ attempt to stop the Trump train,” Gianforte said. “I simply will not stand on the sidelines and allow this to happen.”
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