by Joseph Weber
Another special election, another Bernie Sanders-inspired Democratic candidate.
This time, an upcoming House race in Montana features country singer-turned-candidate Rob Quist, who’s trying next week to win the seat left open by Ryan Zinke’s appointment as Interior secretary.
The odds are stacked against him in his bid to defeat Republican Greg Gianforte. The seat has been occupied by Republicans for the past 20 years, in a state Trump carried in 2016 by 20 points.
And Washington Republicans have done their best to portray Quist as a fringe candidate, most recently blasting out a news story about him playing several gigs at a nudist resort.
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An op-ed last month in the conservative opinion pages of The Washington Times suggested a typical Quist supporter is, like the candidate, a “mustachioed, guitar-strumming socialist one might find at a Bernie Sanders rally.”
Sanders himself plans to hold rallies for Quist in Montana this weekend.
Still, the May 25 contest for the seat of former GOP Rep. Zinke could be close, even with Quist, a first-time candidate, creating his own problems.
He originally underreported $57,000 worth of income in financial disclosures required to enter race. In addition, he defaulted on a $10,000 bank loan and until recently had three outstanding liens for roughly $15,000 in unpaid state taxes.
Recent polls show Quist trailing by just single digits. But his money woes and struggles to articulate his platform led the state’s largest newspaper, The Billings Gazette, this past weekend to endorse Gianforte.
“We don’t have a clue where Quist stands on most issues, and his criticism of Gianforte seems to be either confused or completely without merit,” the paper’s editorial board said. “What’s even worse is that Quist seems unable to tell the truth about his own finances.”
Gianforte, a millionaire technology entrepreneur, has his own challenges, including him losing the state’s 2016 gubernatorial race, despite Trump’s dominance in Montana and Republicans having won every statewide office last November except for that one.
But his campaign — based largely on job creation, gun rights and giving residents more access to public land — appears a winning message for Montana voters.
Quist brings a unique resume to the race, as a former Montana basketball standout who, in his music career, has had country stars like Loretta Lynn record his songs.
Quist says he’s already raised at least $1.3 million, in what amounts to a statewide race, considering Montana, with a population of 1 million, has only one House seat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending roughly $600,000 in connection with the contest. And Quist is getting outside help from Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the Progressive Turnout Project.
Gianforte has not released his fundraising numbers. But he is getting money from the NRCC and the National Rifle Association and roughly $2 million for the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund.
Neither campaign has returned requests for comment.
Washington Democrats have boasted for months about winning 2017 special elections en route to taking the House in 2018 — amid a Trump backlash and voter opposition to GOP efforts to repeal ObamaCare.
However, Democrats have not scored a big victory yet — with a House race in Kansas going red and one in Georgia heading to a June 20 runoff.
And last week, they lost a high-profile Omaha mayoral race with a Sanders-backed candidate.
The contest, moreover, further exposed the Democratic Party divide between the Washington establishment and the progressive wing led by Sanders — the Vermont independent senator and democratic socialist who ran for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
“After Republicans’ 2016 victories, Democrats have searched for a candidate who appears to share the same values as voters,” Rory McShane, a Republican strategist with Harris Media, told Fox News on Monday. “But in every single special election voters have seen through that.”
In Kansas, a Democratic civil rights attorney James Thompson, who got hundreds of thousands of dollars from groups that backed Sanders, almost upset Republican establishment candidate Ron Estes for the open seat of former Rep. Mike Pompeo, now CIA director.
But the DCCC and the state Democratic Party were widely criticized for not giving Thompson their full support and perhaps costing him the race.
In Georgia last month, Democrat Jon Ossoff also ran on a progressive agenda. But the party largely coalesced around the candidate, and Ossoff finished in the top two. He now faces Republican Karen Handel in a runoff for the open seat of former GOP Rep. Tom Price, now secretary of Health and Human Services.
In Montana, a third candidate is also in the contest, Libertarian Mark Wicks. But sources close to Quist and Gianforte’s camps said they do not expect Wicks to win enough votes to influence the outcome of the race. They also point out the race is on a Thursday, not a typical Tuesday, which could result in a lower-than-expected voter turnout.
Like Sanders, Quist supports a so-called “single payer” health care system plan in which the government covers health care costs.
However, he is to the right of Sanders on guns, in a state where voters cherish their Second Amendment rights. (Quist did a campaign ad in which he fired a rifle shot into a TV screen portraying him as a gun grabber.)
Vice President Mike Pence stumped last week in Billings for Gianforte, telling residents, “We need more allies in Congress to make America great again … and we need Greg Gianforte.”
And Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has campaigned for him twice in Montana.