Energized Grassroots Movement Hopes to Vault Montana Democrat to Victory

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Energized Grassroots Movement Hopes to Vault Montana Democrat to Victory

Don Pogreba

"This is not just Montana’s race," said Betsy Swartz of Big Sky Rising, a grassroots organization backing Democrat Rob Quist in Thursday's special election for a U.S. House seat. "The entire country is watching us and helping us be successful.”

With two days before the election for Montana’s at-large U.S. House seat, many Democrats hope an energized voter base, determined to counter President Trump’s agenda, can pull off an upset and return the state’s seat to Democratic hands for the first time since 1995.

The latest polling and projections suggest the race between Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist is narrowing. Roll Call changed its rating on Monday in the race from “Likely Republican” to “Tilts Republican” and the New York Times reported the race is tightening in its final stretch.

A Democratic win seemed unlikely just 80 days ago when the campaign to replace Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) began. Zinke, who was confirmed as secretary of the interior for the Trump Administration in March, won re-election in November by a 56-41 margin over State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. Trump carried the state by a roughly 56-36 percent margin.

And Gianforte—a wealthy former tech entrepreneur who moved to Montana 20 years ago—had just spent more than $5.5 million of his own money building name recognition during a race for governor he lost by four points.

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Trump’s election has seemingly energized voters, particularly women, across Montana. Much of the energy behind Quist’s campaign stems from those concerned about what the Trump agenda and possible election of a Republican congressman from Montana would mean for them. An estimated 10,000 people from across the state gathered at the January 21st Women’s March on Montana to send a message to the Trump administration.

Lea Chiavaras, a nurse practitioner in Helena, “had never worked phone banks, been to political rallies, worked on campaigns, organized local events, or even stayed up-to-date and engaged in political news,” but told Rewire that since Trump won the White House, she has become heavily involved. She attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and co-organized the Helena March for Science and the Montana for Immigrants rally.

She believes electing Quist would “send a message to D.C. that Montanans don’t approve of the horrific job that Donald Trump is doing.”

Katie Clarke, from Whitefish, was so upset by Trump’s remark in his inaugural speech that public schools were “flush with cash” that she “decided to run for school board to be an advocate for public education.” Clarke won her race for school board.

In an email interview with Rewire, she said she is paying more attention to Congress than she ever has.

“I have always voted in presidential races—but I don’t think I ever voted in a midterm election or special election, I didn’t really follow what our congressional people were doing because I just kind of trusted them to do what’s right. Now, I don’t trust them. I’m watching—eyes wide open—following their votes and bills.”

An online grassroots movement has been mobilized in the Trump era. Calling themselves “an army of volunteers,” Big Sky Rising emerged the day after the 2016 presidential election and has become an active forum for both old hands in Montana politics and the newly engaged.

Betsy Swartz, an entrepreneur and founder of Big Sky Rising, which operates under shared leadership, told Rewire in an email that the group “began to gather to share our frustration and disappointment, but realized we were a force to be reckoned with.”

That energy has motivated some to become engaged in politics for the first time.

Helena business owner Lindsey Barnes made her first political donation in the special election, noting that the “dread she felt after the election of Donald Trump and the sense of inspiration and community following the Women’s March” motivated her to donate to “help resist President Trump’s dangerous foreign policy and assault on women at home.” The group has more than 6,000 members across the state, according to its website.

For the Quist campaign, the hope is that this combination of newly motivated volunteers and the traditional Democratic base in Montana will be enough to swing the election.

In the closing weekend of the campaign, Quist and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) turned out more than 12,500 people to rallies across the state’s biggest cities. Quist believes that new volunteers have emerged for his campaign because he will speak for them when it comes to health care and critical decisions in Washington. In an email to Rewire, Quist said the rallies included many “Montanans [who] are worried about their access to health care.”

“We’re seeing people who’ve never been involved before step up because this election they have a chance to elect someone who really speaks for them, a real Montanan who knows what it’s like to be forced into debt from medical costs and thinks no one should ever face bankruptcy because they get sick,” said Quist.

Quist and Gianforte have staked out starkly different positions on health care in what has become, according to longtime Montana journalist Mike Dennison, “the centerpiece” of the Quist campaign. Quist has been harshly critical of House Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), calling it “the un-American health care plan” in rallies across the state. In an interview with Montana Public Radio, Quist called for eventually getting to “Medicare for all,” but argues that in the short term, “we need to really look at fixing the system in place to come up with bipartisan solutions to lower the cost of health care.”

Gianforte, while calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, has been less clear on the AHCA, declining to tell the Montana press whether he would have voted for the bill the same day he was recorded telling a D.C. audience that he was “thankful” for its passage.

Quist has argued in the closing days of the campaign that passage of the AHCA would threaten coverage for 73,000 Montanans who received coverage through Medicaid expansion and the over 426,000 Montanans who have a pre-existing medical condition, adding that Gianforte will receive an annual tax break of over $800,000 if the AHCA becomes law.

Some Democrats initially seemed skeptical of Quist’s nomination. According to a March report from the Associated Press, “some rank-and-file party members said they knew little about Quist, and some prominent Democrats have privately groused that Quist had not been properly vetted.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) initially seemed to shy away from the Montana race, and when Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who had been the organization’s mobilization chair in 2016, was asked in March by Huffington Post whether it would get involved in the special election Clyburn said he didn’t know there was a race happening. The DCCC has since moved to invest in the state.

Donations for the two candidates seems to bear out the idea that Quist is leading a more energized grassroots campaign. Tina Olechowski, the campaign’s communications director, said Quist has raised more than $5 million from “200,000 individual contributions and an average donation under $25.”

Gianforte, meanwhile, has raised less money from fewer individual donors. He reportedly noted in a conference call with D.C. lobbyists that “over 5,000 individual people support the campaign financially so far” before asking participants to kick in $5,000 each. Gianforte has lent his campaign $1 million and given it $500,000.

Gianforte’s campaign finance filings show contributions from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family of conservative megadonors.

For Betsy Swartz from Big Sky Rising, getting involved in this race means sending a national message. She told Rewire that “we knew this special election in Montana would be an opportunity for us to rally behind the candidate who holds our values: issues of equality, reproductive rights, affordable healthcare, protecting our environment, and protecting freedom of the press.”

“We know this is not just Montana’s race, but the entire country is watching us and helping us be successful,” she said.