Montana Democrats just got their ass handed to them. What will it take to get this party started? 

The ballroom at Missoula's DoubleTree hotel hummed with excitement and unabashed optimism on the evening of May 25. Montana's polls had just closed at 8 p.m., and dozens of people were already trickling in as a video screen flashed campaign ads and interview clips. The stage was lit, and a banjo, stand-up basses and a trap set were all waiting for the shindig to kick into high gear.

The race for Montana's sole congressional seat had started off rocky for Rob Quist. He was met with progressive derision after being nominated over state legislator Amanda Curtis, who'd been soundly defeated by Steve Daines in the 2014 Senate race, and he'd received little help from the national Democratic machine. Still, the crowd had reason to be hopeful. Polls indicated that Quist had made late gains on his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, as Election Day approached. Gianforte's election eve bodyslam of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs made him few new friends, giving Quist supporters a much-needed morale boost.

Even so, Quist's supporters were realistic.

"We're fighting for an emotional victory," Fiona Soper said between sips of beer. The 30-year-old University of Montana postdoc student had spent months volunteering for Quist, and defeat, if it came, wasn't going to dampen her spirits.

"Even if we lose," she said, "we'll probably lose by a very small margin—in a state that voted for Trump and hasn't voted a Democrat to this seat in 20 years."

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Soper wasn't far off the mark. When the dust had settled, Quist had indeed lost, with the state's rural counties going strongly for Gianforte. But Quist trailed by only 6 percent, the first single-digit margin of defeat for a Democratic congressional candidate since now-party Executive Director Nancy Keenan lost to Dennis Rehberg by five points in 2000. Quist came closer than his predecessors, just not close enough.

In the weeks since, Democrats and pundits have pontificated ad nauseum on the reasons Quist failed to carry his party across the finish line. Montana's special election had been cast as a referendum on national politics—namely, President Trump—since day one, and the hope had been that a political outsider like Quist could capitalize on resistance sentiment and draw support from the same populist fire that Bernie Sanders stoked last year. And yet the race received scant attention from national Democratic organizations until late in the race, even as Republican groups and conservative outsiders funneled millions to aid Gianforte's cause.

Did the Montana Democratic Party lean too heavily to the left, sacrificing rural support to stir up its urban base? Did the standoffishness of the Democratic National Committee and its sister groups doom Quist from the start? Or was it Quist himself who stumbled, failing to translate his history as an entertainer into an authentic campaign persona?

"At least a hundred different people ... can explain exactly what went wrong, and none of them are saying the same thing," says Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings. "If it was an easy answer, we would just solve this and get on with it."

The most most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the race is a simple one: It's the state Democratic Party's fault. It was the party that selected Quist with the encouragement of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, failing to blaze its own trail by choosing a more experienced candidate at the nominating convention. Or maybe the party's get-out-the-vote efforts were insufficient—voter turnout was 54 percent—or the party tried too hard to find a leftist answer to the populist revolt that swept Donald Trump to office.

One thing is certain: For more than a decade, state Democrats have been fighting an uphill battle against their Republican counterparts. While gains have certainly been made, as evidenced in the repeated elections of Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock, the Democrats have been entirely unable to find a fit for Congress since 1997.

One reason? The disconnect between Montana's urban and rural counties. Quist lost overwhelmingly in rural counties, despite his campaign's emphasis on rural Montana, while claiming Missoula and Helena handily. Capturing rural constituencies has proven such a challenge for Democrats in part because they don't always show up. Quist made a point of campaigning hard in rural eastern Montana even before the nominating convention started, which helped him secure the votes of delegates in those areas. But the roadwork of one man isn't enough to win an election.

Bryce Bennett, a recently termed-out state representative from Missoula now making a bid for the state senate, freely admits that state Democrats have become a "very urban party."

Bennett says Democrats would do better to reach out to farmers, ranchers and other members of the state's rural working class. Citing the "listening tours" of Monica Lindeen and Tester, Bennett says Democrats should be visiting rural constituencies outside of campaign seasons, conveying their economic plans to the people whose votes they need to implement them.

Of course, simply showing up isn't a cure-all. Republicans have been significantly better at conveying their platform in a way that appeals to Montanans. It's a lot easier to advocate lower taxes, less government and more jobs than it is to explain the benefits of social justice and taxes. Bennett calls this a "messaging problem," and he says fixing it will require a lot of attention paid to rural voters.

It will also require clarifying exactly what the Democratic message is. Andrew Person, a former state representative from Missoula who lost his seat to Republican Rep. Adam Hertz in 2016, thinks the party needs a better-defined identity, one that distinguishes itself from the baggage that comes with the national party.

click to enlarge Rob Quist delivered a concession speech to campaign staff and supporters on May 25, flanked by his wife, Bonni, and two of their children. His congressional defeat has prompted a flurry of post-election questions, chief among them: How did the Democrats lose? - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Rob Quist delivered a concession speech to campaign staff and supporters on May 25, flanked by his wife, Bonni, and two of their children. His congressional defeat has prompted a flurry of post-election questions, chief among them: How did the Democrats lose?

A 37-year-old veteran with a young family and an outdoorsy vibe, Person works as an attorney at the Missoula law firm Garlington, Lohn and Robinson. Sitting on the firm's top-floor patio, he discusses economics and campaign finance with the approachable, animated accessibility you'd think voters would clamor for.

"It's not just a matter of getting out there and busting your ass and knocking on enough doors," Person says. "It's a message. It's a coherent message that you can't get across as an individual candidate. You've got to have some backup, and you've got to have that identity, so that if people see a 'D' and they haven't met you, they're not going to write you off."

That means Democrats may have to make some hard choices about priorities. Lindsey Ratliff, a rural progressive currently running in Havre's nonpartisan City Council race, says one good step would be to address issues that resonate beyond the realm of social justice.

"We have people who are blue collar, a lot of people making minimum wage, we have a lot of poverty in Havre," Ratliff says. "I agree with the Democratic platform with social issues, but we need to get back to caring about everybody."

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