By Jasper Craven, VTDigger
Rob Quist, a Democratic poet cowboy from Montana strongly supported by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., lost in a special election for the state’s sole House seat, Thursday, May 25.
Quist’s Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte, won roughly 50 percent of the vote despite being charged with misdemeanor assault Wednesday after allegedly “body-slamming” a political reporter from The Guardian newspaper during an interview. The incident drew widespread condemnation from Democratic Montana politicians. A number of papers, including the Billings Gazette, rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte following the revelation.
“We believe that you cannot love America, love the Constitution, talk about the importance of a free press and then pummel a reporter,” the Gazette’s editorial board wrote.
The special election came after Republican Ryan Zinke, Montana’s previous representative, left his seat to become President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary. The race was tough for Quist, who was competing in a state Trump won by more than 20 points. But Montana has also recently elected Democrats statewide, including the governor, Steve Bullock.
While the country music singer outperformed expectations — notching roughly 44 percent of the vote — the win by Gianforte, a wealthy tech executive endorsed by Trump, suggests that the Sanders and the Democratic Party have not yet made enough progress in wooing rural, working and middle class voters to secure wins.
Sanders crisscrossed Montana the weekend prior to the vote, stumping with Quist. About 12,500 Montanans attended rallies featuring Sanders, according to Quist’s campaign.
“There is a visitor we have from Vermont tonight,” Quist said during an event Saturday, May 20, in Billings. “We’ve had the great honor of spending the whole day with him.”
According to recent polling, Sanders is the highest-rated U.S. senator, with a 75 percent approval rating. And he still enjoys a rock star status
in pockets of the country where he performed well during his 2016 presidential bid. Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the Montana presidential primary by six points — 51 to 45 percent.
Ben Hahn, a Billings resident who started a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, explained his passion for Sanders in an interview with The Young Turks. He said the local DSA chapter has been organizing for Quist through voter registration and phone drives.
“We’d just like to see more progressive values at the national level, at the state level, and the local level,” he said.
As the crowd roared with excitement Saturday, Sanders stepped on stage and shook hands with Quist. Sanders waved to the crowd as the David Bowie ballad “Star Man” echoed through the venue — a frequent rally song used for Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Voters held up Quist signs as well as “Bernie for President” banners.
Sanders heaped praised on Quist through his half-hour speech. “Rob understands — and you understand — that the time is long overdue for us to have a government and an economy that works for all of us,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I love about Rob’s campaign — what makes it a unique and special campaign,” Sanders continued. “He is not getting his campaign contributions from millionaires and billionaires and super PACs.”
Quist managed to raise more than $6 million, and he boasted of the Sandersesque dollar amounts coming in. According to his campaign, more than 260,000 people pitched in for Quist, with the average donation hovering at $23. (Sanders’ average contribution was $27.)
In March, Quist was endorsed by Our Revolution, Sanders’ outside political group. The group raised more than $170,000 for Quist, and local chapters organized over 60,000 calls, 12,000 texts and hundreds of door-knocks in a show of support.
“Rob Quist ran a campaign that inspired hundreds of thousands in Montana and around the country,” said Jeff Weaver, the president of Our Revolution, in a statement early Friday, May 26.
“Rob came close in a challenging race in a state where Trump is still popular. He was able to come so close because he stood with working families against the far-right corporate agenda that controls the national Republican Party. While we did not win this time, all across the country candidates running on a populist progressive message are winning in places like Philadelphia and New York and coming close even in the reddest of states,” Weaver continued.
In his Montana tour, Sanders urged his supporters to keep fighting, no matter what the results of the special election.
“There are a lot of people who are demoralized, there are a lot of people in despair,” Sanders said. “But you understand that the future of this state and the future of this country is about not having people withdraw, not having people turn their backs on the problems we face, but having people stand up and fight back for justice for working class Americans,” said Sanders.
U.S. House candidate Rob Quist