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

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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 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.

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