Rob Quist, the once-longshot, banjo-strumming populist running for Montana's empty U.S. House seat, is giving Republicans a scare.
On Thursday, Quist's campaign announced a startling $5 million fundraising haul that came from more than 200,000 individual donations over the course of 85 days. What's more, the political novice has refused contributions from lobbyists and corporate political action committees, earning him the respect of progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who will hold a campaign rally in Missoula on Saturday, as well as events in Butte, Billings, and Bozeman ahead of the May 25th special election.
The Treasure State's sole House seat, previously occupied by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has not been held by a Democrat since 1997. However, the GOP and pro-corporate groups are clearly feeling the heat and pouring millions into the campaign of Quist's Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, a wealthy software engineer who launched a failed bid for Montana governor last year. Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks is also running.
Like the race for Georgia's sixth district, many see Montana's special election as a test of the resistance to President Donald Trump, who is currently knee-deep in scandal—from the firing of FBI Director James Comey, to his myriad conflicts of interest, to possible connections between his campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Despite this, Gianforte has continued to voice support for Trump.
At the same time, voters have also been greatly frustrated by Republican legislators who not only have rushed to the president's defense but are actively working to destroy healthcare for millions of Americans.
Many believe the healthcare issue could prove to be the GOP's downfall in many state-level races, including Montana.
"Rob's story is resonating with voters who want someone who will stand up for them," Quist campaign spokeswoman Tina Olechowski told The Hill. "After medical complications following surgery, Rob got into debt. He paid off his debt, but Rob believes no one should ever face bankruptcy just because they get sick. Greg Gianforte supports the health care bill that would raise costs for consumers, eliminate health coverage for seventy thousand Montanans, and end protections for pre-existing conditions—all to pay for huge tax breaks for millionaires like Gianforte himself."
Similarly, Sanders said last month, "Rob Quist is the only person in this race who understands that we need a government in Washington that works for all Montanans and all Americans and not just the special interests and the billionaire class."
Despite all of his momentum, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has done little to back Quist. When asked by Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson what his relationship is with the national party, Quist said: "I really don't have one. We've been running our own thing here."
The indifference from Washington, D.C., is hard to square against the party's stated ideals for reviving its political fortunes: Quist is seeking statewide election in the fourth-largest state in the union—campaigning in towns that haven't seen this kind of attention from Democrats in decades. But he has not received a phone call from new Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, who won office in February vowing to compete "in every ZIP code" across the country, and insisting Democrats must invest in "rural outreach."
More than $8 million has been spent so far in the Montana race, most of which has flowed towards Gianforte. Politico reported Thursday that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is launching a $200,000 ad buy for the last week of campaigning. Meanwhile, the Center for Responsive Politics noted that "the top three outside spenders in the election—the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committeeand theRepublican National Committee—had collectively shelled out more than $4.7 million in independent expenditures as of May 17 to oppose Quist and advocate for Gianforte."
"Groups backing Quist have spent a fraction in comparison," the Center reported, "theDemocratic Congressional Campaign Committeehas outspent the others at $340,000. Other PACs on Quist's side are theProgressive Turnout Project and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which had made independent expenditures totaling just under $200,000 and about $120,000, respectively, through May 15."
Gianforte raised roughly $3.3 million from late January to early May, according to the Federal Election Commission reports. According to the Center, this includes a $1 million loan the candidate made to himself.