Banjos and Billionaires: The Fight for Montana’s At-Large Congressional District

 /  April 10, 2017, 8:42 a.m.


On March 1, 2017, Montana’s sole representative in Congress, Ryan Zinke, was confirmed as Donald Trump’s secretary of the interior by a 68-31 vote in the Senate. The next day, Zinke rode a horse to work, clad in jeans and a cowboy hat. That’s almost all you need to know about Montana politics.

Now the election to replace Zinke in Congress is heating up, pitting three political outsiders against one another. The leading candidates are Republican Greg Gianforte, a billionaire businessman and former candidate for governor, Democrat Rob Quist, a Montana country music icon, and Libertarian Mark Wicks, a cattle rancher. Each candidate is working hard to appear the least politically connected and the most willing to represent Montanaand only Montana. Gianforte’s website proclaims, “I’m not a government insider.” Quist promises “to be an independent voice for Montana.” In a state that President Trump won by a crushing 21-point margin, both major-party candidates are working hard to appear as distant from beltway establishment as possible.

While the candidates may be trying to portray themselves as political outsiders, this race may have long-term consequences for future political ambitions. The Montana at-large (MT-AL) seat has historically been a jumping-off point to higher office. Before his nomination to head the Department of the Interior, Zinke was the Republican favorite to challenge Democratic senator Jon Tester in 2018. Montana’s other senator, Steve Daines, served only one term in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2014. Max Baucus, the longest serving senator in Montana history from 1978 to 2014, previously represented Montana’s First District (which no longer exists) from 1975 to 1978. The winner of this election will certainly become a power player not only in Montana, but also in national politics for years to come.

Rob Quist won the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot of the Democratic convention, defeating state representative Amanda Curtis 90-69. Quist, a musician born and bred in Montana, is well-liked and well-known around the state. “Rob has told Montana’s story through song for thirty years,” said former governor Brian Schweitzer in his endorsement of Quist. “He understands Montana.” This sentiment was echoed by state representative Jacob Bachmeier in a statement to the Gate. “Not only does he look like a cowboy, but he was born and raised on a ranch in Montana,” Bachmeier said. “He has spent his whole life touring the state and writing songs about its people. If anyone understands what it means to represent Montana, it’s Rob Quist.”

Many Democratic endorsements of Quist hinge on his quintessential “Montana-ness,” a thinly veiled criticism of Gianforte. Fresh off an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign to unseat Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock, Gianforte was branded as an out-of-state rich guy during that campaign; he still can’t seem to shake the “billionaire from New Jersey” attack line, which continues to haunt him in this campaign.

On the other side, Quist is being hit by ad buys from both Gianforte (who spent $5.1 million of his own money in his run for governor) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC); the latter recently put out a release tying Quist to Bernie Sanders and placing him “left of even Nancy Pelosi” for his support of single-payer healthcare. However, this attack may not hold water, given Montana’s tendency to vote for populist Democrats. Montana Democrats did, after all, vote for Sanders even after Clinton had clinched the nomination in June.

Yet, some odd financial news has come out of the Quist campaign: in an atypical though not strictly illegal move, the Democratic nominee is drawing a salary from his campaign funds. Montana has also filed three tax liens against the country music star, and he has been accused of fraud by a former band member. Quist attributes many of his financial troubles to a botched surgery in 1996 and claims a legal settlement with the surgeon prevents him from discussing it publicly.

All things considered, Gianforte is not in a bad spot after winning the Republican nomination on the first ballot. Montana’s at-large congressional district has been in Republican hands since Democratic representative Pat Williams retired in 1996. Even Rob Quist’s field manager  deemed his candidate's’ chances “a long shot.” Gianforte’s campaign website emphasizes his ties to President Trump, who carried the state by a 21-point margin, 57-36, even as Gianforte was losing his bid for governor 50-46. Like Trump, he promises to “stand up to special interests and the Washington, DC establishment to drain the swamp.” His website even has an entire “Drain the Swamp” section. Gianforte ticks all the boxes in the modern Republican climate, from “government outsider” with a history of “job creation” to the most basic: name recognition.

This run for Congress, however, may just be a part of Gianforte’s continued quest for the governor’s mansion. Gianforte has vowed to serve at least two terms in the House, freeing him to run for higher offices in 2020. David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, called this plan “sensible,” saying, "If [Gianforte] were to leap to a different seat, it would be the governor's seat in 2020, which is open … It's sensible for Gianforte to run for the House, run for the House again and then governor after that."

Gianforte successfully won 46 percent of the vote for governor, and turnout will undoubtedly be lower during the May 25 special election, a circumstance which the chair of the Montana GOP explained often favors Republican candidates. This state branch of the Republican Party issued a statement recently against a Republican-sponsored bill meant to increase voter turnout, warning higher turnout and an increase of mail-in balloting would “give Democrats an inherent advantage” in the upcoming election. Unsurprisingly, this statement by the state party has caused some infighting, with the Republican state senator who sponsored this bill, Steve Fitzpatrick, claiming “concerns that Democrats would unduly benefit are overstated.”

Also in the running for Zinke’s seat is Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks, a “cattle rancher and writer from Inverness.” Wicks, like Quist, knows he faces an “uphill battle,” but still vowed to fight on while the other candidates merely fought “each other.” Wicks rejects the idea that he may be a “spoiler”; however, Libertarians candidates often garner almost as many if not more votes than the winner’s margin of victory in Montana. Bullock beat Gianforte by 3.8 percent in 2016, while the Libertarian gubernatorial candidate took 3.4 percent of the vote. In 2012, Tester was elected to a second Senate term by a margin of 4.2 percent, while Libertarian Dan Cox won 6.6 percent. Of course, this may merely indicate a large Libertarian constituency in Montana: a recent poll found Wicks at 11 percent, with Quist at 48 and Gianforte at 41, though an undecided option was not included.

Will the brash, tell-it-like-it-is Republican billionaire be elected? Will the country music icon win over voters’ hearts? Or will the world be shocked by a Libertarian winning a congressional seat for the first time in US history? “If we want to save this country, we need a .45 caliber man,” ends one of Rob Quist’s most oft-quoted songs. Who will Montana choose to save them? Only time will tell.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Ridgley Knapp

Ridgley Knapp is a third-year Political Science major interested in domestic policy and economic theory. This summer, he was an intern for Senator Richard Blumenthal in Washington, D.C. On campus, he is a member of varsity crew and the UC Democrats. He also sits on the Executive Board of College Democrats of Illinois. When he isn't working, he enjoys spending time with friends.


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