By Jim Ellis
March 7, 2017 — It is commonly said that political conventions often assume a life of their own, and Sunday’s Democratic gathering in Montana to choose an at-large special congressional election nominee proved no exception to the axiom.
Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) scheduled the congressional replacement vote for May 25 for the purpose of replacing former Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Whitefish), who is now US Interior Secretary. Therefore, all recognized political parties had to quickly caucus in order to choose their individual nominee. Democrats immediately announced they would meet on March 5, and Republicans followed suit yesterday. The Libertarians will select a nominee on Saturday.
Going into the party meeting at the Helena Great Northern Hotel in Montana’s capital city, state Rep. Amanda Curtis (D-Butte), a high school mathematics teacher who had been the party’s 2014 US Senate nominee, appeared to have the inside track for the special congressional nomination. Eight individuals stood before the 160 voting party members, with only two, Curtis and state Rep. Kelly McCarthy, being elected officials.
The voting consumed four rounds, with the final ballot winnowed down to Curtis and local bluegrass/country rock musician Rob Quist. On the final tally, it was Quist, born in Cut Bank, Mont. 69 years ago, who scored an upset 90-69 vote victory. Post-convention interviews suggested the majority of delegates wanted to choose the candidate they believed was more electable. Apparently, most thought Curtis would repeat her fate of 2014 when she fell to then-Rep. Steve Daines (R), 58-40 percent in that year’s US Senate campaign.
Rob Quist came to local fame when he and four others formed the Mission Mountain Wood Band back in 1971. He has been touring regionally, singing, writing songs, and performing for over 45 years. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), who supported Quist in this convention, appointed him to the Montana Arts Council where he served for 11 years.
Quist says he is well suited for this quick campaign because he has traveled throughout the state for years, meeting the average Montanan and believing his crossover appeal to Republicans is strong. According to the Billings Gazette reporter who covered the convention, Quist says he “has had conversations with Republicans, and they agree on 80 percent of the issues.” This might be a challenging statement to maintain since Quist publicly supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I/D-VT) in the last presidential campaign.
It is unclear just how supportive national party leaders and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will be of Quist’s efforts. Such will be decided when the national officials get a better read on the campaign after digesting the Quist upset victory.
On Monday, 212 voting Republican delegates met at the same venue as the Democrats to decide who would become their nominee.
Businessman Greg Gianforte, the 2016 Republican gubernatorial candidate who held Gov. Bullock to a 50-46 percent re-election victory, appears to be the front-runner. Two weeks ago, he released the names of 117 convention delegates who he says are pledged to him on at least the first ballot. If this proves true, the number will award Gianforte a victory on just one round of voting since the aforementioned figure represents an absolute majority of voting Republican state committee members.
In addition to Gianforte, Sen. Ed Buttrey (R-Great Falls), one of three majority whips in the state legislative chamber, state Rep. Carl Glimm (R-Kila), former state senator and Montana Republican Party chairman Ken Miller, road construction contractor Dean Rehbein, real estate investor and Tea Party activitst Drew Turiano, and former state Sen. Ed Walker, all have paid the internal party filing fee to qualify as candidates.