Though it has barely 1 million residents, Montana can serve as a valuable microcosm of Trump-era politics. Exit polls show Trump garnered two-thirds of votes from whites without a college degree; Montana is 87 percent white, and 69 percent of its residents lack a bachelor’s degree. And with only one House representative, candidates must hit cities and rural areas alike.
“The Montana race, because it’s a statewide race ... I think there is something more to be gained looking here than at other special elections that are very small slices of suburban Atlanta, for instance,” said Robert Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana. “Certainly, if Rob Quist wins, that would be a real statement that something has changed since November.”
Neither candidate hails from the political establishment. Quist grew up on a ranch in Cut Bank, Montana, but made a name for himself singing and playing banjo for the Mission Mountain Wood Band, a country-music act popular in the state in the 1970s. His closest brush with political experience was an 11-year stint on the Montana Arts Council. He owns a horse ranch in the northwest part of the state and certainly looks the part of rancher: mustachioed, omnipresent cowboy hat, a hearty 6-foot-3 frame.
In March, however, it seemed Quist’s young political career was going to meet an early demise. A series of news reports divulged that Quist had, over 16 years, racked up more than $27,000 in debt, which included unpaid contractor fees, $15,000 in back taxes, and an outstanding line of credit. But Quist used his debt history, which he says stemmed from medical problems, as a way to relate with his voter base. “Quite frankly, this is the kind of stuff that happens to everyday Montanans,” he told the Associated Press.
News of his medical woes has only grown in poignancy. Quist’s health-focused town halls coincided with the initial foundering of the American Health Care Act, but the recent passage of the House bill ensures health-care reform will be a key issue in this race. Should Senate deliberations stretch into 2018, the opinions of Montana voters could predict rural sentiment nationally come next year’s midterm elections.
Gianforte, like Trump, touts his business record. He rose to prominence in Montana by founding a tech company in Bozeman and selling it to Oracle for $1.5 billion in 2011. His first foray into politics was a 2016 run for governor, which he narrowly lost to Steve Bullock (Gianforte was the only Republican to lose a statewide race). That campaign hinged on business-friendly policies, but a record of social conservatism also emerged. BuzzFeed detailed his $1.1 million in donations to anti-LGBT organizations, and Gianforte’s support of a creationist museum yielded perhaps the only attack ad in history starring a paleontologist.