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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Democrats Pick Rob Quist To Run For Congressional Seat

Rob Quist speaks at the Democratic Party's nominating convention in Helena.
Corin Cates Carney
Rob Quist speaks at the Democratic Party's nominating convention in Helena Sunday

Montana Democrats picked songwriter and musician Rob Quist as their candidate for the special election in May that will determine who will represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Who better than a musician for a campaign like this?" Quist asked rhetorically after securing the nomination."This is something I’ve been doing all my life," Quist said. "I’ve been campaigning in another way, but instead of playing music and providing entertainment for people, we’ll be giving speeches and hopefully trying to energize people and I think we are really well prepared for that.”

When the May 25 election was announced by the governor last week, Montana’s political parties started scrambling to select a candidate and organize campaign efforts.

More than a hundred and fifty democratic party members gathered in Helena yesterday to vote on who should represent the party in the sprint race.

Their choices included two state legislators, lawyers, and political newcomers, who, like Quist, who had never campaigned for public office before.

They had to vote four times before one of the eight candidates won a majority. Ultimately, delegates had to choose between Quist and State Representative Amanda Curtis of Butte. Curtis addressed the electabilty issue in her speech to delegates.

“Many in this room have said that the one thing weighing on your mind," Curtis said, "even though I am the most qualified person here, I’ve proven I can raise money, you really like me as a person and as politician, and you really think I’d make a great congressperson, but, can a woman really win right now?"

Curtis unsuccessfully ran against Republican Steve Daines for a US Senate seat in 2014, becoming the Democratic candidate after the party’s first choice pulled out of the race.

In his speech, Quist, who won fame starting in the 1970s as a member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, emphasized his outsider status. Under a slightly turned down brim of a cowboy hat, he told the democratic party he’s been appealing to Montanans all his life.

“I come here not as a career politician, rising through the ranks," Quist said. "Congress is made up of actors, athletes, bankers, fireman, teachers, and small businessmen. And as a poet musician I ask you to look outside the bubble of Helena to a man who has represented Montana from behind a different kind of microphone.”

Rosebud county democratic vice chair Jean Dahlman was one of several delegates who spoke in support of Quist.

“More than any other candidate, Rob has a special relationship with Montana voters," Dahlman said. "He can appeal to independent and moderate republicans. These are the voters we must win over in order to win the general election.”

The electability argument appears to have won the nomination for Quist said University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin.

“That was really the focus of his message. Some of the other candidates emphasized experience. And that was the obvious knock on Quist, is that he is new to politics," Saldin said. "But, you know, as we've seen in politics being an outsider as a certain appeal and at least in his telling it is helping reach people that democrats have struggled to reach.”

During his speech Quist touched on Democratic keystones, promising to work at rebuilding the middle class, protect public lands, preserve and strengthen the Affordable Care Act, and keep special interest money out of elections.

Within minutes of his nomination, Republicans, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, issued press releases saying Quist is too liberal for Montana, pointing to his support for registering guns and for Bernie Sanders.

For their part, Democrats at yesterday’s convention immediately started organizing their base and move behind the internal competition in selecting Quist.

Circling up by county, democratic volunteers began passing out cardboard boxes filled with addresses and phone numbers. Andy Shirtliff, a staffer for Governor Steve Bullock led one of these groups.

Tyrel Suzor-Hoy from Helena volunteered to organize the party’s efforts in his Lewis and Clark county, which went Republican in the U.S House Race in November. Suzor-Hoy hedged around the question of whether Quist was his favorite candidate, instead saying there were many good candidates but Rob Quist can win because he has broad statewide appeal.

“And Rob Quist is Montanan by heart, he will support Montana and will do everything in his power to make sure that the Montana people are spoken for," he said

Throughout their convention, Democrats also took some time to drop a few lines attacking Greg Gianforte, a front-runner for the Republican party’s nomination.

Gianforte narrowly lost the governor's race to Steve Bullock last November.

The Montana GOP will hold their nominating convention Monday afternoon, where Gianforte is among 6 candidates vying for the party’s support.

The U.S. House Seat recently vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke hasn’t been held by a Democrat in two decades.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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