Reporters Alex Sakariassen and Michael Seibert went beyond just parsing the special election. They posed questions, and some answers, on what Montana Democrats should do to win elections — some of which I agree with and some I do not.
The too clever headline with a donkey graphic gave me pause: “Montana Democrats just got their ass handed to them.” Hillary Clinton got her ass handed to her in a 20 point loss in Montana last November. Democrat Rob Quist’s six point loss was a decent showing considering recent congressional races.
My favorite quote was this one:
“At least a hundred different people … can explain exactly what went wrong, and none of them are saying the same thing,” says Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings. “If it was an easy answer, we would just solve this and get on with it.”
So true, but for starters, Democrats need to do better in McCarthy’s hometown of Billings. All this talk of rural outreach is fine but coming up 10,000 votes short in Yellowstone County is about the same number Quist lost by in Montana’s 25 least populated counties.
Here’s the whole article and here’s a paragraph from early on:
The most most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the race is a simple one: It’s the state Democratic Party’s fault. It was the party that selected Quist with the encouragement of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, failing to blaze its own trail by choosing a more experienced candidate at the nominating convention. Or maybe the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts were insufficient—voter turnout was 54 percent—or the party tried too hard to find a leftist answer to the populist revolt that swept Donald Trump to office.
It was hardly the state Democratic Party’s fault. I’ve written on this subject before. It was about as democratic a process as time and statutes would allow. Quist received the most votes from delegates at the convention. Perhaps it wasn’t the right decision, we’ll never know, but obviously a majority of delegates believed he had the best chance of winning. Simple as that. Here’s an outtake from an earlier Intelligent Discontent post on the Quist nomination:
The Quist selection, from what I’ve gleaned, came down to three things. First, Denise Juneau — a smart, young female with a political resume — lost a race for the same seat seven months earlier. Convention delegates (enough of them, anyway) were looking for something new: an outsider, maybe someone in a cowboy hat, who would appeal to rural voters. Second, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s early endorsement of Quist was a huge boost. Finally, Quist was well known as the front man for the Mission Mountain Wood Band. Since many of the delegates were in their late fifties to mid-sixties, they probably boogied down to Quist at one time or another in the ’70s and ’80s.
As to “the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts were insufficient,” I would disagree. I’m not sure about GOTV in Billings, Great Falls or the Flathead, but Bozeman and Missoula’s endeavors were phenomenal — obsessively knocking doors and making calls — and it showed. Democratic stalwarts Butte, Anaconda and Helena turned in good numbers, too.
And yes, 54 percent turnout is pitiful but it closely matches Montana midterm election statistics for the last couple of decades. Keep in mind that those elections had a whole slew of candidates and initiatives on the ballot people could vote on, they weren’t held on a Thursday in May before the Memorial Day weekend and all had more than a 90-day run up. So, in perspective, 54 percent isn’t bad.
Then there’s “the party tried too hard to find a leftist answer to the populist revolt that swept Donald Trump to office.” There is some truth to looking for a populist but a leftist? Quist hardly came across as a leftist. Certainly, Republican PACs painted him to the left of Che Guevara but his message was pretty mainstream: public lands, tax reform and single-payer health care. The notion, it would seem, is that universal health care — practiced by every civilized nation and quite a few uncivilized ones — is a radical concept.
Another couple of lines that bothered me were these:
The race for Montana’s sole congressional seat had started off rocky for Rob Quist. He was met with progressive derision after being nominated over state legislator Amanda Curtis, who’d been soundly defeated by Steve Daines in the 2014 Senate race…
It didn’t seem that rocky to me (I was a Curtis delegate at the convention). Curtis supporters and the more mainstream McCarthy delegates rallied around Quist. With Trump in the White House, and far-right creationist Greg Gianforte looking like a shoo-in for the Republican nomination, it was the right thing to do.
As to “Amanda Curtis, who’d been soundly defeated by Steve Daines in the 2014 Senate race… ” Amanda, with no name recognition, entered the race against a congressman after a scandal caused the Democratic nominee to resign, and with only 75 days left before the election and a war chest a fraction of Daines’, she fared better than Clinton did in Montana against Donald J. Trump.
The Indy article also raises the point of “authenticity.”
Quist crafted a compelling platform based on health care, public lands and tax reform. Perhaps he just tried too hard to look like an outsider’s idea of an authentic Montanan. Montana voters are a discerning bunch. It’s not enough to wear a cowboy hat and talk about ranching, as candidates from Dennis McDonald to Dirk Adams have discovered the hard way. You’ve got to be real.
If the election of Daines, Ryan Zinke and Gianforte is any indication, maybe Montana voters aren’t quite the “discerning bunch” as the reporters say they are. I believe that Quist is authentic. He may not be the most charismatic or articulate candidate to come down the pike (neither was Max Baucus and he served 4 years in the U.S. House and 36 years in the Senate) but he is very real. As far as the cowboy hat and cowboy boots… Are/were hat-and-boot wearing former Congressman Denny Rehberg or current Secretary of the Interior Zinke or the late Sen. Conrad Burns more of a cowboy than Rob Quist? Not hardly.
Money raised and spent by the campaigns took up a lot of ink in the story. It was an obscene amount — over $12 million at last count. Quist’s came in the form of smaller, individual donations and Gianforte’s tended to be larger, including $2 million of his own money. The more telling amounts were from Super PACs: $4.7 million for Gianforte and about $600,000 for Quist.
Had Democratic PACs invested more money and done so earlier, could Quist have won the race? It wouldn’t have hurt; relentless Republican attack ads before Gianforte had even locked up the nomination definitely did damage to Quist, but other factors played in the loss as well. A steady stream of negative press contributed mightily to Quist’s defeat.
The question that really needs to be asked is how the hell are we going to get all this money out of politics. It’s a disgrace and until it happens, all the other strategic analysis in the article is a moot point.
The Indy reporters do raise some fundamental issues the Montana Democratic Party must address. The first being the need to build its bench, starting with more Democrats running for school board and city council and county commissioner all over the state. The second is the need to hone the party message. It needs to get back to being the party of the people in a well thought out, articulate and authentic (there’s that word again) way.
On these two points, I hardily agree with the Indy article. It won’t happen overnight but with help from the current crises-laden administration in Washington, D.C., the dysfunctional GOP controlled Congress and a Montana Republican Legislature that puts its party before the interests of the state, it might come sooner rather than later.