Democrats have so far failed to convert liberal anxiety over their presidential-election loss and their desire to regain political power into an outright win in any of the special elections to replace Republican lawmakers tapped to serve in the Trump administration. The party has a chance to change that in an upcoming House election in Montana. But while Democrats want to capitalize on the president’s low national approval ratings to win back seats, it’s not clear the party has found a winning formula yet to compete in rural parts of the country where Trump is more popular.
Montana is the kind of state where Democrats may need to make inroads if the party wants to expand its reach across the country, and convince voters who believe Democrats are out of touch that they are not a party of coastal elites. Trump won the state by double digits in November, and both candidates in the special election to replace Republican Ryan Zinke, who left Congress to become interior secretary, are making a populist pitch. Democrat Rob Quist reminds voters that the House of Representatives should not be a “millionaires’ club.” Republican Greg Gianforte has promised, like Trump, to “drain the swamp.”
Despite recent polling that shows Gianforte in the lead, national Democrats have invested in the May 25 race for Montana’s only House seat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, has spent roughly $600,000 to help fund pro-Quist TV advertising and voter-turnout efforts. The Democratic National Committee plans to deploy staffers to the state, help fundraise and recruit volunteers for the campaign, and spend five figures on a digital-advertising play to get out the vote.
That may not be enough, however, to counter the efforts of national Republicans. GOP outside groups have poured more than $2.5 million into the special election. Vice President Mike Pence is slated to campaign alongside Quist’s Republican challenger, and Donald Trump Jr. has already stumped for Gianforte in the state.
The Montana contest creates a challenge for the Democratic Party. Trump’s election has convinced Democrats that the party must complete across the United States to win back the influence it has lost at the state and federal level in recent years. But as Democrats try to prove they can win even in places that aren’t liberal strongholds, the national party’s overarching anti-Trump message may prove alienating in states like Montana, where many voters approve of the president.
There are even indications that Quist—whose campaign website claims he will act as “an independent voice for Montana” in Congress—wants the national party to keep its distance. The Huffington Post reported last month that the candidate “declined an offer from the Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez to campaign for him in the state,” citing an anonymous source. The Quist campaign and the Montana Democratic Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the race and the scope of national Democrats’ involvement.
“Help from the national level is a double-edged sword,” Evan Barrett, a veteran Montana Democratic political operative, told me. “When the national party sends in resources, that can really help, but it’s not so good for the National Democratic Party to come to Montana in a highly visible way. That could put a partisan brand on the race, which could turn off some people the campaign needs to win over.”
It’s nothing new for Democrats running in conservative parts of the country to try to distance themselves from the national party. But after the party adopted what prominent Democrats described as the “most progressive platform” in its history during the last election, that move may be all the more necessary. Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who faces reelection in 2018, has tried to show he won’t reflexively oppose Trump. Tester has voted in line with the president’s agenda roughly 40 percent of the time—far more frequently than many Senate Democrats. “I’ve got my problems with Trump,” he recently explained to The Washington Post, “but I’m going to give him every opportunity to succeed.”
Some political activists who supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary argue that if the party were to embrace a more populist economic agenda, Democrats in working-class or rural parts of the country might not need to distance themselves from its stamp of approval. “If the Democratic Party brand is toxic, maybe they should rethink their brand,” said Corbin Trent, a co-founder of Brand New Congress, an organization formed to support 2018 primary opponents against both Democrats and Republicans. “The party needs to be more responsive to the needs of American people who feel that the party has turned its back on them.”
No matter how populist the agenda, however, there would likely still be elements of the party platform, like support for gun control, that could become a liability in conservative parts of the country. That includes Montana: In one ad, Republican Gianforte says: “some folks just don’t get it, our Second Amendment rights are not up for negotiation,” after a narrator ominously accuses Quist of wanting to “establish a national gun registry” that would put residents’ personal information “in a big government computer.” In an ad of his own, Quist, wearing the cowboy hat that’s become his signature, wields a rifle and vows to “protect your right to bear arms.”
But even as he tries to showcase his political independence from Washington, Quist doesn’t seem to want every party leader to stay away. Sanders, who remains an Independent but is officially part of Senate Democratic leadership, endorsed Quist last month, and is expected to campaign alongside him ahead of the election.
As Democrats work to rebuild in the Trump era, some party leaders acknowledge that “there’s no question that the Democratic Party needs to strengthen its brand,” as Deputy DNC Chair Keith Ellison put it in a recent interview. He argued that the party can do that by “strengthening our ties, and connection and trust with the grassroots.”
“We’re willing to help as much as the candidates on the ground are willing to allow us,” Ellison said, noting that “there are some candidates who are trying to make more of an independent appeal, and in their subjective view, it wouldn’t necessarily help to have us coming in really strong.”
But, Ellison added: “The only thing I ask for candidates is to take responsibility for the outcome. If the candidates want us to be heavily involved, then we should, but if they feel like striking a more independent tone would be better, then don’t be mad if we’re not all over the place.”
Even if Montana Democrats don’t think the national party’s presence would benefit their candidate, however, they still want the party’s money. As the race heads into its final stretch, some Democratic operatives think national groups should make an even larger investment in the race.
“There’s a big difference between sending in the DNC chair and a decision by the party to invest money to help the campaign effort. My understanding is the DCCC sent in a decent amount, but they certainly could invest more,” Barrett said. “The GOP poured money into Montana from Day 1 of the campaign on negative ads. The question now is whether national Democrats will do more to truly level the playing field.”
Some progressive critics, meanwhile, think the party should devote more attention to the Montana race to prove it cares about winning in non-urban and not-as-affluent parts of the country, especially after national Democrats largely stayed on the sidelines of a Kansas special election last month in a deep-red congressional district. The Democratic candidate ultimately lost that race, though it proved far more competitive than most observers had predicted.
“I think the additional influx of resources in Montana is a good move,” said Winnie Wong, the co-founder of the grassroots progressive group People for Bernie, which formed during the presidential primary to support Sanders’s White House bid. “It means they are seeing the error of their ways. That said, I do think they should have mobilized for Quist much earlier on.”
Of course, Democrats in Washington don’t necessarily see it that way. Michigan Representative Dan Kildee, a member of the DCCC leadership team, defended the group’s investment in the race, arguing in an interview that Montana is “clearly a priority.” “The DCCC is investing, and I think investing in the right way,” Kildee said, “by empowering people who know Montana politics to make decisions about the priorities of the use of resources, which is really a smart way to go.”
“My view is that every seat in America is in play,” Washington Representative Denny Heck, another member of DCCC leadership, told me. “We’re self-evidently backing candidates,” he said. “I think that seat’s in play, and I think Rob Quist is doing a great job,” he said. “He’s a unique candidate. The bolo-tie appeal, the cowboy-hat appeal. It’s very, very fitting for Montana. This guy is Montana.”
No race, candidate, or congressional district is the same, of course. If the party aims to make investments in elections based on what local campaigns and activists want—and how competitive they believe a race to be—it makes sense that national Democrats would engage differently in different races. The question now is whether they can translate their engagement into concrete gains as the party tries to win seats in state legislatures, in Congress, and eventually the White House. And whether, and to what extent, the party itself will need an overhaul in order to do that.