Big Sky Election: Rob Quist’s Blue Bid for Montana’s Congressional Seat

By Adrian Flynn

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When it comes to local politics, every state has its own hot-button issues: New Yorkers tend to think about climate change, Floridians worry over income taxes, and Texans often consider immigration policies. But in Montana, it’s all about the land. People want unobstructed access to the land, and their main obstacle in obtaining it is “land grabs” by the wealthy in order to exploit natural resources, such as oil and timber. As a result, land access and preservation defines Montana’s politics and will be the key issue in a special congressional election this month to replace Ryan Zinke as Montana’s at-large Congressional representative in the House of Representatives. The stakes are so high that even Mike Pence flew to Montana over the weekend to throw the weight of his office behind the GOP candidate.

Over spring break, I attended the local Tax March in Bozeman, Montana, a college town considerably more liberal than the rest of the state. We met in front of the Internal Revenue Service building and marched to a highway intersection, where we spread out to the four corners to make ourselves seen.

Through speaking with my fellow protesters, many of whom denounced Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, I was able to better understand the social and political climate of their communities, as well as their views on federal politics. Some were Republicans who did not feel comfortable with the GOP’s far-right trajectory, especially when it came to Trump. Others were Independents who simply thought that every president should maintain a certain level of transparency, one the Trump Administration has failed to produce.

Over the course of the hour and a half that we were out there, we got many dozen honks of support, waves, and smiles from drivers and passengers. Every once in awhile, someone stuck out a middle finger or cursed at us. This energized us as much as, if not more than, the support we received. From a range of political backgrounds, we marched united in our cause.

As the protest came to a close, our local leader gathered us to announce that Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee for the congressional seat of Montana, was opening a campaign office. Quist, a country singer born on a ranch in Northern Montana, is running against Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who had bought a massive property in the state in the 1980’s and moved there. Quist supports public lands, unions, and other liberal ideals often associated with Bernie Sanders, who has announced plans to campaign alongside him in the days before the election. In stark contrast, Gianforte has filed a lawsuit to privatize a creek near his property, supports deregulation of assault weapons, and has a league of GOP super PACs behind him running negative ads against Quist.

Suddenly, Montana seemed almost like a “purple state”: with the right candidate, it could easily go red or blue.

Later that day, my father and I walked into the Bozeman Union Temple, a support office for labor unions. I immediately recognized Quist. His tall figure, wide grin, and signature cowboy hat made him a powerful presence in the room. He gave me a firm handshake and thanked us for the support.

After a few speeches by local politicians to get us fired up, Rob Quist dominated the microphone. He spoke with passion about single-payer insurance, regulation on Wall Street, supporting unions and of course, the protection of public lands. He never once mentioned Donald Trump. However, he emphasized accountability, which clearly referred to both the President and the “300 millionaires in congress.”

In Quist’s words, it is “time for the House of Representatives to represent the people.”

This is the type of local opposition that will fuel the Democratic Party’s opposition to the Trump movement. In Montana, opposition comes in the form of supporting public land grants instead of leasing it for private purposes. This is the land where locals hunt, fish, hike, camp and enjoy the pristine outdoors, and it is the lifeblood of Montanans. It is these environment-centered values that got an incumbent Democratic Governor and Senator elected in the state, both of whom were ranchers like Quist. These elections can determine progressive policy agendas that represent the values of the average Montana constituent, and show a schism from federal policy. So while the word “Trump” is not usually explicitly mentioned in Montana’s congressional campaigns, Montanans may have their own perfect way of banding together and not letting him lay a finger on their land or their state.

The people of Montana will vote for their next congressperson on Thursday, May 25th.

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