This story is the second of a three-part series, profiling the candidates in the May 25 special election for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat.
In a room packed with supporters at a Kalispell schoolhouse last weekend, Democratic U.S. House candidate and musician Rob Quist brought them to their feet – with a poem he wrote about his love affair with Montana.
“She’s slow to grant her favors to come-lately newer faces,” Quist recited. “To long-time suitors, she reveals her hidden secret places. … If you’re a man of honor, you must cherish and protect her.”
The partisan crowd roared its approval -- but, as Quist has said himself, the first-time candidate will have to appeal to more than his hardcore Democratic supporters if he hopes to win Montana's special congressional election on May 25.
Quist, 69, a career musician and co-founder of the iconic Mission Mountain Wood Band, is competing against Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks for the open at-large seat, which became vacant March 1 when Republican Ryan Zinke resigned to become Interior secretary under President Donald Trump.
Quist became a surprise candidate late last year, but he'd be an even more surprising victor, in a state where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 20 percentage points and Republicans swept to victory last year in every statewide race but one.
And the only statewide Republican loser last November – Gianforte, in a close race against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock – has fully embraced Trump, betting that the president and the GOP haven’t lost their shine in Montana in just six short months.
Quist, however, says he’s not concerned about being the underdog, given that he’s fairly well-known by a generation of Montanans and is pitching himself as an “independent voice” that will speak for all Montanans, regardless of party.
“This is less about party and about being a Montanan,” the Cut Bank native told MTN News in an interview last week. “We agree on so many of the issues here in the state. … I plan to represent the entire state of Montana.”
Quist emerged as a candidate late last year, after it was announced that Zinke would become Interior secretary.
He’s known for his role in the Mission Mountain Wood Band, whose surviving members still occasionally perform together, and has toured the state and region with his own country band, Great Northern.
Backed by former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Quist won the state Democratic Party’s nomination at a special convention March 5.
Politically, Quist often talks like a Populist liberal, saying the wealthy classes have dominated politics for too long and that he represents the Everyman.
Quist points out that his campaign has raised more than $4 million from 150,000 people, giving an average of $25 each – and that he’s up against national Republican Party groups that have spent more than $4 million on ads and mailers attacking him and Gianforte, a multimillionaire businessman, has loaned his own campaign $1 million.
“It signifies the fact that the people of Montana and the people of this nation are backing me,” he told MTN News. “Again, standing against a millionaire’s club. Let’s just call it how it is. … There are enough millionaires in Congress. We need somebody who is going to represent everybody else.”
Quist and fellow Democrats also are using the same political playbook they deployed to defeat Gianforte last year, calling him an out-of-touch millionaire and accusing him of threatening public lands.
Yet the campaign hasn’t exactly been a smooth political ride for Quist.
He’s had to explain why he faced property-tax liens and debt collectors in the past decade – he says it was related to medical costs and debts stemming from a botched gall-bladder surgery – and has been repeatedly slammed by GOP groups, the National Rifle Association and others for suggesting in a January newspaper interview that ownership of assault rifles should be registered.
Quist has said he was misquoted and that he does not support registering firearms – and produced a TV ad of himself shooting a TV showing an attack ad on the gun issue.
On most issues, Quist has standard Democratic positions: Pro-choice on abortion, a staunch defender of public lands, pro-public education, and adamantly opposed to GOP efforts to repeal “Obamacare.”
“I think there could not be a bill that would be more wrong,” he says of the Obamacare repeal bill passed by the U.S. House two weeks ago.
Yet he says he still thinks of himself as a rural, eastern Montana, and hopes to appeal to some of those voters in his upset bid.
“I need to reach out to the farmers and let them know that the Farm Bill is going to renegotiated next year, and that (the Trump) administration is going to be making cuts to the Farm Bill, and they will have an advocate in me,” Quist said last week.
Tomorrow: A look at Republican Greg Gianforte.