While national Democrats compile lists of President Donald Trump’s controversial statements, firings, and ties to Russia as ammunition for upcoming campaigns, Democrat Rob Quist is taking a different approach.
Though Quist’s Republican opponent for Montana’s at-large seat in Congress, businessman Greg Gianforte, is favored to win the special election Thursday, Quist has gained ground recently. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales changed the race from a Likely Republican rating to Tilts Republican on Monday. His campaign announced Tuesday that he's raised more than $6 million, which has been crucial in the final days of the race.
At Quist's rallies on the last weekend before the election with Sen. Bernie Sanders, there was hardly any mention of Trump, James Comey, or Russia.
That’s become a rarity in a year when many Democrats are thinking like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who said last week that “to think they’re going to drive an economic message with this blazing inferno [of the Russia investigation] going on today is just not realistic.”
But in the set of rallies across the state that Quist dubbed the “Weekend with Bernie,” Sanders, who won Montana’s Democratic presidential primary last year over Hillary Clinton, and Quist talked economics, especially health care, not the blazing inferno in Washington.
Tina Olechowski, Quist’s communications director, asked why the candidate wasn’t going after the Trump and Russia angle, said, “The answer to your questions is simple: health care.”
She went on to describe Quist’s financial struggles after complications from surgery, saying the experience showed him that “no one should ever face bankruptcy just because they get sick.”
In the absence of a single election post-mortem, different analyses have emerged from Democratic circles, but common themes are apparent.
Many echoed an analysis by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and consultant David Eichenbaum that said “The candidate and party with a simple, compelling and consistent economic message that empowers people is the side that usually wins. No matter what polling may say about the efficacy of a positive message at any given time, we need to give voters a reason to be FOR us.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden made a similar point in December, saying the party isn't reaching working-class Americans on issues that matter to them, and isn't showing sufficient understanding of their financial struggles.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro wrote Tuesday that regardless of who wins the Montana special election, it would be rash to use the results as a crystal ball to predict whether Democrats or Republicans would prevail in 2018 and 2020.
But he also cautioned Democrats against making the election a referendum on impeachment, something Republicans tried unsuccessfully against Bill Clinton in 1998. Shapiro said the fundamental problem facing both Republicans and Democrats is that, while they know what they're against, they "are having a hard time figuring out exactly what they're for.”
Quist doesn't appear to have that problem.
Health care gets the attention
On the stage in Bozeman, complete with a drum set and cheering fans taking cellphone videos, Sanders and Quist focused particular ire against the Republican health care bill. Sanders said it wasn’t really a health care bill, but an effort to give tax cuts to the wealthy by throwing people off of insurance, and Quist stated his opposition to the sale of Montana’s public lands.
Mike Jopek, former Democratic member of the Montana House of Representatives and a columnist for the Flathead Beacon, said the focus on health care made sense for Montana.
The Republican health bill, he said, would hit “big, rural and aging states like Montana very hard.” Medicaid expansion was passed on a bipartisan basis in Montana's legislature and the bill’s sponsor was a Republican.
According to Jopek, low wages, Native American reservations, the Libby asbestos site, and oil drilling in Montana all contribute to a particular need for health care. He said in the past this need was served by frequently uncompensated local hospitals.
Compared with talk of Russian interference in the election, which Carroll College Associate Professor Jeremy Johnson said was “more abstract,” “the threat of being denied health care is more connected to the daily lives on Montanans.”
Montana’s particular politics
Montana is unique politically, open to electing a Democratic governor and Republican president in the same election, as it did in 2016. But Johnson said with the House-passed Republican health care bill looming in the Senate, Quist had a chance to talk more in terms of policy specifics than platitudes or opposition.
Jopek pointed out that support for the 2010 health care reform law was a big part of Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s last campaign. Tester is up for re-election in 2018, and the House race could give him a better idea of the lay of the land.
Tester campaigned for Quist recently, saying it would be a “shot fired across the bow,” of conventional wisdom, showing Democrats can win House races, if Quist won. “If we elect Rob Quist to Congress this will reverberate around this country,” Tester said at a rally.
Banking on the unpopularity of national Democrats in Montana, ads from a GOP super PAC have attempted to portray Quist as allied with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the party. But Quist has also kept the national party at arm's length, most recently by turning down a visit from DNC Chair Tom Perez.
Meanwhile, Gianforte has tied himself closely to Trump, saying recently that his first priority as congressman would be “to work with Donald Trump.” He’s running on repealing Obamacare, selling public lands for private development, and cutting spending. Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. have made appearances supporting Gianforte.
Jopek said stream access and preservation of public lands have outsized influence in Montana, where outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing are popular, and a big part of the state’s economy.
Though Trump’s popularity is higher in Montana than in other states, Johnson said that there is an active progressive community in the state, pointing out the 10,000 people who turned out for the January Women's March on a cold winter day in Helena.
Even if Quist doesn’t win Thursday, his approach could show Democrats an alternate route to contesting elections in the Trump era, one that doesn’t allow Trump to drive the narrative.