The Folk Singer vs. the Millionaire: A Berniecrat Aims for Montana’s House Seat

Rob Quist’s House campaign draws on Montana’s populist spirit.

Joseph Bullington

Populist folk musician Rob Quist is campaigning for Montana’s sole House seat. (Courtesy of Rob Quist for Congress)

I first heard of Rob Quist last fall, when I saw him play in White Sul­phur Springs, Mont., the con­ser­v­a­tive ranch town of 900 peo­ple where I grew up. Until recent­ly, this is how most Mon­tanans knew him: a folk musi­cian they had seen in bars, gym­na­si­ums and fair­grounds across the state. Quist grew up on a ranch out­side the small town of Cut Bank, on the bor­der of the Black­feet Nation, and has made his liv­ing play­ing music since the 1970s. 

The Montana special election is a chance for Montana to show its stubborn independence and confound national expectations.

Today, Quist tours the state in a dif­fer­ent role — as a pop­ulist Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date to fill Montana’s sole House seat. He’s cam­paign­ing on a sim­ple mes­sage: You shouldn’t have to be a mil­lion­aire to hunt, fish and hike in our great out­doors, get a good edu­ca­tion or be able to sup­port your family.” 

The May 25 spe­cial elec­tion — trig­gered when Repub­li­can Ryan Zinke resigned the seat to serve as Don­ald Trump’s sec­re­tary of the inte­ri­or — will pit Quist against an actu­al mil­lion­aire. Greg Gian­forte moved from the East Coast in 1995 to Boze­man, Mont., where he found­ed the soft­ware com­pa­ny Right­Now Tech­nolo­gies. In 2011, he sold Right­Now for more than $1.8 bil­lion. He has poured mon­ey into con­ser­v­a­tive caus­es, includ­ing $6 mil­lion into his own failed guber­na­to­r­i­al cam­paign last year. 

Many nation­al com­men­ta­tors char­ac­ter­ize Quist’s cam­paign as a quixot­ic long­shot in deep red” Mon­tana. In a state that Hillary Clin­ton lost to Trump by 21 points, the con­ven­tion­al think­ing goes, a Bernie Sanders-style Demo­c­rat stands lit­tle chance. 

But Montana’s dis­taste for estab­lish­ment Democ­rats like Clin­ton does not make it deep red.” Of the West­ern states that went for Trump in Novem­ber — Mon­tana, Ida­ho, Wyoming, Utah and Ari­zona — all except Ari­zona went for Sanders in the pri­ma­ry. In Mon­tana, it was not only urban lib­er­al enclaves that vot­ed for him. Of the state’s 45 coun­ties with few­er than 10,000 reg­is­tered vot­ers, Sanders won 28

On the same bal­lot in which they vot­ed for Trump, Mon­tanans also reelect­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Steve Bul­lock over Trump enthu­si­ast Gian­forte. In 2008, Barack Oba­ma lost the state by only two points. 

One good way to under­stand Montana’s polit­i­cal com­plex­i­ty is through the issue of pub­lic lands, which reflects class inter­ests more than par­ty loy­al­ty. Despite a lib­er­tar­i­an ten­den­cy to dis­trust the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, Mon­tanans over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port fed­er­al pub­lic lands. These lands — Nation­al Forests and Nation­al Parks, wilder­ness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers— com­prise more than 27 mil­lion acres in Mon­tana, 29 per­cent of the state’s land base. And almost all of them are free to access, camp on, hunt and fish. Pub­lic land is one of the last egal­i­tar­i­an insti­tu­tions in Mon­tana — land where peo­ple of mod­est means can live as free as rich peo­ple, and fill their freez­ers for the price of a $20 elk tag and some bullets. 

A post-elec­tion sur­vey of West­ern states found that 88 per­cent of Mon­tana vot­ers favored improv­ing access to pub­lic lands.” Only 38 per­cent favored open­ing up new areas of pub­lic land to oil and gas drilling. Giv­en such pop­u­lar sup­port, it wouldn’t seem that pub­lic lands are in need of much defense. But they are. Trump intends to increase oil and coal extrac­tion on fed­er­al lands, and on April 26 signed an exec­u­tive order that threat­ens nation­al mon­u­ments. Nation­wide, mon­eyed con­ser­v­a­tive groups like Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty and the Her­itage Foun­da­tion are push­ing to trans­fer fed­er­al pub­lic lands to the states, with the ulti­mate aim of pri­va­ti­za­tion and ramped-up resource extraction. 

Gianforte’s char­i­ty foun­da­tion has donat­ed to three think tanks that advo­cate fed­er­al land trans­fer, and he con­tributed to the cam­paign of Mon­tana state Sen. Jen­nifer Field­er ®, CEO of the land-trans­fer advo­ca­cy group the Amer­i­can Lands Coun­cil. The state GOP’s plat­form sup­ports land transfer. 

In 2009, Gian­forte sued the state to block a pub­lic access ease­ment to the East Gal­latin Riv­er near his prop­er­ty. The issue was resolved, but the inci­dent cast Gian­forte in the role of that most despised Mon­tana char­ac­ter: the rich out-of-stater who buys up land and then locks Mon­tanans out. 

Quist, by con­trast, has put pub­lic land defense at the cen­ter of his cam­paign. Sens­ing the threat, the GOP’s Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund has spent $700,000 on TV attack ads. One shows Quist — weath­ered face, mus­tache, cow­boy hat — while a voiceover calls him too lib­er­al and out of touch for Mon­tana,” an inter­est­ing charge from a D.C.-based super PAC against a man raised on the Mon­tana Hi-Line. 

Nation­al Democ­rats were slow­er to get involved, though they announced April 20 they would start putting mon­ey into the race. Their hes­i­tance may actu­al­ly help, says pop­u­lar Mon­tana pol­i­tics blog­ger Don Pogre­ba, because Mon­tanans are often skep­ti­cal of can­di­dates with too many nation­al par­ty fin­ger­prints. To win in Mon­tana, authen­tic­i­ty is real­ly impor­tant,” he says. 

He does wor­ry that, with jour­nal­ists fail­ing to dig into Gianforte’s record, his high-dol­lar ad cam­paigns may pre­vail over Quist’s small­er bud­get and face-to-face cam­paign­ing style. 

This is where Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion that grew out of Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial run, comes in. 

The group endorsed Quist, and Sanders him­self said he’d cam­paign in Mon­tana. Accord­ing to board chair Lar­ry Cohen, many of the 20,000 Mon­tanans who have signed on to Our Rev­o­lu­tion are mak­ing phone calls, tex­ting and knock­ing on doors for Quist. The group has also con­nect­ed Quist to the nation­wide net­work of small donors that pow­ered the Sanders cam­paign, help­ing raise near­ly $1 mil­lion in March alone from more than 20,000 indi­vid­ual dona­tions aver­ag­ing $40 each. 

The Mon­tana spe­cial elec­tion, then, is a chance for Mon­tana to show its stub­born inde­pen­dence and con­found nation­al expec­ta­tions. It’s less a ref­er­en­dum on Trump and more a test of the rad­i­cal idea behind Sanders’ run: that a vol­un­teer-pow­ered, small-donor-fund­ed, pop­ulist cam­paign can over­come one backed by big mon­ey and a nation­al par­ty apparatus.

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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