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."

Gianforte's victory didn't come cheap. By Election Day, spending by the candidates and party allies totalled more than $12 million, a price tag the Center for Responsive Politics pointed out was higher than that of "any House race in the state going back at least as far as 1990." Less than $1 million of the race's estimated $7.2 million in outside spending went to support Quist.

Given their reluctance to come to Quist's aid, national Democrats have attracted a significant amount of blame for last month's loss. Their arms-length approach to the race left Quist to fend for himself against constant attacks funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Rifle Association.

"I do feel like they just kind of let us get beat up," says Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula. "Then you see how much [national media] attention we got right at the end, it's like, 'This is such a golden opportunity to pour some money into a race.'"

The only signal of national support for Quist came in the form of a late-race four-stop road trip with Bernie Sanders that drew thousands of attendees in Missoula, Butte, Bozeman and Billings. But Sanders is hardly the face of the national Democratic establishment, and even the DNC's multistate pep rally featuring Sanders and chairman Tom Perez kept a curious distance from Quist. Sanders' Montana appearances were billed as separate and distinct from the DNC tour of which Sanders was otherwise a part.

It's easy to understand why Montana Dems are frustrated by the lack of national support for Quist, and why they feel that an early boost from outfits like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee might have carried Quist to victory. But that expectation ignores a long history of marginal outside spending in Montana's congressional showdowns. It also ignores the state of the national party's priorities (races the party thinks are winnable) and its unmistakable toxicity in much of middle America.

The DCCC's hands-off approach to Quist makes total sense to David Daley, a former editor in chief of Salon.com and author of Ratfucked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy. Daley is a longtime political wonk who feasts on conversation about congressional gerrymandering and the role that Republican majorities in state legislatures like Montana's have played in shaping the current balance of power in the nation's Capitol. In an interview with the Indy in mid-May, at the height of the election, Daley theorized that national Democrats—Sanders excepted—were likely steering clear of Montana for fear that the national brand "won't sell there."

"There aren't a whole lot of surrogates who you could imagine sending into rural America who wouldn't turn voters off," Daley said. "It says something about where the Democratic Party has gone over the last decade."

Daley compared the Montana race to recent special elections in Georgia, South Carolina and Kansas, where Democratic nominee James Thompson bemoaned his lack of national support after losing last month, telling the New York Times, "If the national Democratic Party would start getting more involved in these races earlier, then maybe we could flip them."

click to enlarge Though consensus among Democrats as to why Quist lost is hard to come by, there is no shortage of theorists, including, from left: former state Rep. Andrew Person; 2018 state senate candidate and outgoing Rep. Bryce Bennett; freshman Rep. Jacob Bachmeier; and freshman Rep. Shane Morigeau.
  • Though consensus among Democrats as to why Quist lost is hard to come by, there is no shortage of theorists, including, from left: former state Rep. Andrew Person; 2018 state senate candidate and outgoing Rep. Bryce Bennett; freshman Rep. Jacob Bachmeier; and freshman Rep. Shane Morigeau.

In Daley's opinion, national Democrats need to show more imagination about expanding their agenda into states, like Montana, that already have Democratic senators and governors. Winning 23 seats in the House means you've got to have 70 targets, Daley said, even if not all of them look promising. It's not enough to believe the wind is at your back. You have to translate energy and resistance into victory.

"Democrats need not only a 50-state strategy, they need an every [national] district strategy and every state district strategy," he said. "They need to be out in force running in local elections, making themselves heard and being a part of the process if they want to win. If you want to have a shot at winning, you need to have a candidate in the race. If you want to build a bench, you have to build up victories." That could take years.

But if the big party dollars are so critical to success, then how did Quist narrow the gap to single digits? Montana Democrats, left to their own devices and outspent by a record amount, came closer to claiming the state's House seat than in any other race since 2000. If outside spending—or the Democrats' lack thereof—wasn't what doomed the Dems, then what was?

There is a third possible takeaway from the special election, one that some Democrats might have a hard time swallowing: The problem was the candidate.

In the wake of his loss, some Democrats are arguing for more collaborative candidates who can take a more moderate stance on the issues. Democratic Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, 19-year-old state legislator from Havre, says the state's history of electing moderate Democrats, like Tester and Bullock, points the way.

Yet Quist, who campaigned as a left-populist, advocating Medicare-for-all and protection of public lands, in many ways outperformed expectations. More moderate candidates for the seat weren't able to do as well.

There's a reasonable argument to be made, then, that it was Quist's politics that got him so close. The success of Bernie Sanders in Montana during the 2016 presidential primaries, in which the Democratic Socialist won a slew of both rural and urban counties, supports the suggestion.

Quist had no shortage of positions that more centrist Democrats avoid like the plague. His support for single-payer health care could have been hammered harder, and the focus that Quist did place on the issue points to a certain degree of savvy. Rural Montanans have significant difficulty accessing adequate health care in an already broken system, and the notion of a publicly funded system has potential to play well with that constituency. Quist's advocacy for overhauling the nation's tax code to eliminate undue corporate advantage was also a smart tactic in a state that has traditionally reacted to corporatism with suspicion, as evidenced by the state's resistance to corporate personhood. Perhaps Democrats were onto something when they nominated a candidate the national media seemed to consider Sanders' cowboy heir.

The only stone left unturned, then, is Quist himself. Even before his nomination by state party delegates, Quist was being billed as a familiar face, a longtime performer and co-founder of Montana's semi-famous Mission Mountain Wood Band. National media outlets were happy to jump on the hook, calling him a "singing cowboy," a "cowboy-poet" and a "banjo-playing congressional hopeful."

The mold was clear: a folksy, charismatic outsider with all the Western trappings.

It's not especially surprising that state Dems would go this route. Young, fresh, progressive faces like Curtis, 2014 U.S. House candidate John Lewis and 2016 House candidate Denise Juneau hadn't exactly performed well in recent electoral outings, so why not return to the tested model of purple state Democrats like Schweitzer and Tester? The former rode his blustery personality through two gubernatorial terms, and prompted widespread speculation regarding presidential aspirations. The latter leveraged three stints in the state senate and a resumé heavy on his Big Sandy farm into a successful 2006 bid against incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. Whatever dirt their detractors might sling, both continue to win points for authenticity among Montana voters.

"You just get the vibe from him that he's genuine," Rep. Morigeau says of Tester. "When you talk to him, he's not just trying to fill you with crap. If he's going to be able to do something, he's going to do it or he's going to try to do it. If he can't, he'll tell you he can't."

For an experienced entertainer accustomed to playing to the crowd, Quist struggled to strike a similar chord. He wore boots and a cowboy hat. He could strum a guitar and recite poems about Montana when the moment demanded—and when it didn't.

Conservative critics, on the other hand, reframed Quist's outsider status in less flattering terms. Former Republican Montana congressman Rick Hill derided Quist as a "cowboy-hat-wearing hippie," and early attack ads predefined Quist as an out-of-tune Nancy Pelosi surrogate.

His campaign took revelations about his financial difficulties in stride, folding Quist's debt trail into a humanizing story about a botched gallbladder surgery and the setbacks any average Montanan might suffer in the face of a broken health-care system.

But Quist's performance seemed to fall apart when he was pressed on even the most basic Democratic issues. During an interview with the Indy, streamed live on Facebook, Quist tripped over himself on a question about rights for transgender people, opening his answer with an awkward anecdote about wearing tights in an opera in college. Partway through the only debate held in the special election, Quist pivoted in a similarly awkward manner from a question on mounting tensions with North Korea to an attack on Gianforte over Russian investments that it was apparent Quist didn't fully understand.

click to enlarge During a May 20 rally at Missoula’s Adams Center, Bernie Sanders sang Quist’s praises and proclaimed, “Now is the time to fight back.” Many hoped Quist could appeal to voters in the same way that won the Sanders the Montana Democratic primary in 2016. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • During a May 20 rally at Missoula’s Adams Center, Bernie Sanders sang Quist’s praises and proclaimed, “Now is the time to fight back.” Many hoped Quist could appeal to voters in the same way that won the Sanders the Montana Democratic primary in 2016.

Quist's inability to articulate a stance or an argument under pressure gradually undermined his image of authenticity. None of the Democrats interviewed for this article directly condemned Quist's campaign performance. Nor did they point to any obvious failures on the part of the party or the candidate. But on the question of authenticity, so central to the imaging of both the Quist and Gianforte campaigns, Missoula's Person does cite one particular misstep. It came on the issue of gun control, in the form of a now-familiar ad in which Quist, armed with an heirloom lever-action rifle, shot a television airing an NRA attack ad against him.

"Quist is a gentle guy," Person says. "I don't think he's the kind of guy that pulls out a gun and shoots a TV. So I think it fails on the authenticity level."

Quist crafted a compelling platform based on health care, public lands and tax reform. Perhaps he just tried too hard to look like an outsider's idea of an authentic Montanan. Montana voters are a discerning bunch. It's not enough to wear a cowboy hat and talk about ranching, as candidates from Dennis McDonald to Dirk Adams have discovered the hard way. You've got to be real.

Each of these factors—a misguided state party, an apathetic national party and a lackluster candidate—played some role in Quist's loss, and each, in its own way, serves as a sort of indictment of the playbooks of both the state and national Democratic parties. But at the end of the day, the simplest explanation is probably the most accurate. Rob Quist lost because Rob Quist wasn't a very good candidate.

Bernie Sanders captured the hearts and the votes of Montanans on the strength of his from-the-gut personality. Jon Tester and Brian Schweitzer satisfied the base's appetite for dyed-in-the-wool Montana spirit. Yes, Quist was all but abandoned by the national party, and yes, the party has a messaging problem. But it was Quist who missed the mark. He tried to play to his strengths but faltered in ways that undermined his credibility. At the end of the day, that was his downfall.

The party shouldn't take that as a strike against his platform. Rather, Quist's ability to narrow the margin where past Democrats have failed should convince them to put even more energy into developing candidates who can articulate, in an authentic voice, why they're the best choice to carry Montana's banner.

"To be the party of the people, like I believe we are, we need to keep finding ways to get people to run for office, think outside the box on getting people involved," Morigeau says.

What Democrats need is not a push to the center, or collaboration with Republicans. The party needs candidates who can present Quist's platform with authority. To that end, Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Keenan recently announced the establishment of a "Blue Bench Project" to identify and groom Democratic candidates, and dormant Democratic central committees are being reactivated in rural counties. Morigeau is convinced that potential candidates are everywhere, in the small towns where many Montanans grew up.

With the 2018 midterms already fast approaching—Gianforte filed for re-election just this week—the Democrats don't have much time to learn the lessons of Rob Quist. If they don't, or can't, they may have to come to terms with another generation of having their hats handed to them.

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