By Jim Ellis
April 3, 2017 –News coming from Montana last week has put this seemingly quiet special election congressional campaign squarely on the political map.
It has largely been believed that the Democrats are effectively conceding three of the four specials now occurring because President Trump chose the previous incumbents for cabinet positions. On the other hand, CA-34, which opened when Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) became California attorney general, is a district where Republicans barely attract double-digit support. This special election campaign will likely feature two Democrats advancing to the run-off election, and is not in play for the GOP.
So far, the GA-6 race has received most of the early attention and appeared to be the only one where Democrats are going all out to win. Consensus Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff has already raised a whopping $4 million, and has a good chance of placing first in the jungle primary scheduled April 18. When Montana at-large candidate Rob Quist announced yesterday that he has already raised more than $754,000, the special election paradigm was altered.
The Democratic state convention chose Quist, a country rock performer and long-time local Montana folk singer, as their nominee at the beginning of the month, just after Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Kingfish) won confirmation as US Interior Secretary. Quist, though never before a candidate for political office, was viewed as someone fresh who could attract interest, which is proving to be the case. He upset 2014 US Senate nominee Amanda Curtis in the state nominating convention, and it now appears that the majority of delegates knew what they were doing.
To raise over $750,000 since March 5 with an average contribution of $40, means the Quist operation is already operating at a surprisingly high level. Though Montana has many media markets, none are particularly expensive. Therefore, Quist already has the resources to make known his message before the May 25 election even if he doesn’t raise much more.
The new candidate’s solid fundraising effort also moves this contest closer to the top of the national Democratic Party’s support list, meaning national funds would quickly be directed here to help their competitive nominee. With such movement, outside interest groups would be more likely to spend in support of Quist. Combined, this means the Democratic effort should easily exceed $2 million for the special election that will be decided May 25, more than enough to run an effective Montana campaign.
Quist is also attempting to strike a moderate tone, something he must do for acceptance within the Montana electorate. He is vocal in support of the 2nd Amendment – a must for all Montana candidates – and is advocating tax reform to help small business. He has strong labor union support and several national environmental groups are also actively backing him.
Though Montana has been a reliable state for Republicans in the presidential contest –- in this most recent election President Trump scored a 56-36 percent win –- Democrats still can win statewide campaigns here. Before the 2016 election, they controlled five of the six state constitutional offices.
Republican nominee Greg Gianforte is independently wealthy, so he is guaranteed to have the needed resources. He spent over $6 million of his own funds during the 2016 gubernatorial campaign, a race he lost 50-46 percent to incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock (D). His surprisingly strong performance in the November campaign made him the prohibitive favorite to capture the special election nomination in convention, completing the task with a first ballot victory.
These most recent developments suggest that the Montana special is becoming a serious political contest and merits close attention in the coming weeks.