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

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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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