The battle over Montana’s vacant House seat

A banjo-playing Democrat and a tech-industry Republican are fighting to fill Ryan Zinke’s spot.

 

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes about the environment and politics in Montana.


Even if you don’t normally consider high-stakes poker a spectator sport, you may want to turn your attention toward the Treasure State. Up here, we’re watching the Republican Party double down on a candidate with a losing hand against a Democrat who wears a Stetson and plays the banjo.

Winner takes all, or in this case a vacated seat in the House of Representatives. Neither man has spent an hour in any elected office, which lately appears not only to be an asset for the job, but a prerequisite. 

Here’s the deal: When President Donald Trump named Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to be Interior Secretary, it triggered a special election for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. State party officials picked the candidates for the May 25 vote.

Anyone who regularly bets on a Democrat in Montana is a gambler who likes long odds. Democrats who do manage to win here — Sen. Jon Tester or former Gov. Brian Schweitzer — tend to know how to drive a tractor, look good in a cowboy hat and boots, and also have outsized rural Western personalities.

This year, Democratic operatives think they have their man in Rob Quist. Quist earned his statewide name recognition not as a politician, but as a cowboy singer. Quist posters have been plastered all over county fairs and Fourth of July picnics in Montana for decades.

Rob Quist performs at the University Theater in Great Falls in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
Forest Service Northern Region/Flickr

He was a founding member of the legendary Mission Mountain Wood Band, which was the Montana bluegrass answer to the Grateful Dead, before many of its band members were killed in a tragic plane crash in 1987. (Quist had previously left the band for a successful solo career.) In his political campaign, Quist, who was raised on a Montana cattle ranch, has focused on the agriculture economy, quality education and access to public lands and rivers.

Republican Greg Gianforte is a highly successful businessman in the tech industry who is proud of his business acumen and his fiscal and social conservatism. His sole brush with the electorate came in 2016, when he challenged Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock for the governor’s mansion.

Gianforte, who lives in Bozeman, anted up millions of his own dollars for that campaign and still lost to Bullock by four percentage points. One loss may not mean much; after all, Abraham Lincoln lost a lot of races before he was elected president. But Gianforte’s loss occurred on an Election Day where the same voters went for Donald Trump by 21 points over Hillary Clinton. 

One might think that the kind of conservative, jobs-oriented voter who liked billionaire-businessman Trump would go for billionaire-businessman Gianforte. Instead, thousands of Montana Trump supporters dumped Gianforte for a down-ballot Democrat. In 2016, Trump’s coattails and Gianforte’s pocketbook both fell short.

In a speech earlier this year, Gianforte aligned himself with President Donald Trump. “We need to back Donald Trump and keep this seat in Republican hands.”
Wikicommons

Even before Gianforte was chosen to run in the Congressional race, the nation’s Republican establishment had gone on the attack. A GOP Super PAC bought six-figure ad buys against Quist, labeling him a gun-grabbing, Bernie Sanders socialist. Maybe the labels will stick, but they could also backfire. My guess is that this election will not be about jobs, health care or even a referendum on Trump. In these turbulent times, the question in voters’ minds will be: Who understands Montana, and who will have the interests of everyday Montanans in mind?

Montanans tend to remember their history, when the Copper Kings bought Senate seats with envelopes of cash. This is a problem for Gianforte, because the more money he spends, the more he inadvertently reinforces the story that he is a rich man trying to buy votes. The message and the medium don’t matter as much as the means. 

Gianforte already stepped in the horse pucky on this topic. In his last campaign, it came to light that he had sued the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks over public-fishing access to the Gallatin River near his Bozeman estate. This was a political disaster for Gianforte, because it reinforced the narrative that he failed to understand how crucial access to the outdoors is to the rank-and-file Montanan.

The issue wasn’t the river. The issue was freedom. That became the eights-and-aces hand that killed Gianforte’s campaign for the governor’s job. It’s still two months until the election, and Gianforte may have cards he isn’t showing. However, he can’t undo the past. The Gallatin River narrative is still out there, fresh in the public’s mind, should Quist chose to exploit it. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.