The Democrats' Battle for Montana

A special election in Big Sky Country has fired up the liberal base enough to scare Trump and the GOP

Rob Quist is trying to fire up the party faithful in his race against Republican Greg Gianforte leading up to a May 25th special election to fill Montana's sole congressional seat. Credit: Bobby Caina Calvan/AP

Campaigning in a white cowboy hat and working 15-hour days, Rob Quist, a folk-singer-turned-populist House candidate, has caught fire with the grassroots of the Democratic Party, whose donations are transforming a shoestring campaign into a small-dollar juggernaut. You might assume the national Democratic Party would also be zeroed in: Montana presents a critical test of the party's renewed "50-state strategy" and a crucible for reconnecting with rural voters in advance of the 2018 elections. But you'd be mistaken.

It's the third week of
 April, days before early
 voting begins, but party 
leaders haven't even picked 
up the phone to call Quist. 
From across the dinette of a
 Winnebago that doubles as the campaign's mobile headquarters,
 now careening toward Bozeman, I ask Quist to describe his relationship to the national party. "I really don't have one," he says with a shrug. "We've been running our own thing here."

Montana may seem an unlikely battleground for Democrats: Hillary Clinton lost by 20 points here; Ryan Zinke – Trump's new Interior secretary whose statewide seat is up for grabs – trounced his House opponent by nearly 80,000 votes. But Montana voters are fiercely independent. On the same ballot, they gave the state's Democratic governor a second term, sending a charisma-challenged tech titan named Greg Gianforte to defeat. The same Gianforte is now the GOP's troubled nominee for the House. Montana is very much in play.

Responding to the threat, the GOP has launched a multimillion-dollar attack-ad blitz, and Donald Trump Jr. is en route to Montana to campaign against Quist. "They're worried," says Nancy Keenan, head of the state Democratic Party. "They know they have a race on their hands."

The Quist campaign is an epic roadshow. Its 24-foot Winnebago begins the day parked outside a lentil-sorting factory in the farm town of Ulm, where Quist makes a populist pitch to workers in hard hats and dusty jumpsuits. "This isn't a millionaires' club," Quist, 69, says. "This is the U.S. House of Representatives." The Winnebago then zags northeast to Great Falls, the state's third-largest city, where Quist seeks the endorsement of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance. At a table strewn with packets of jerky, Quist pledges to defend gun rights and brings tears to the eyes of a hunter by reciting couplets of a cowboy poem he wrote about defending Montana from newcomers with schemes "to cheapen and abuse her." 

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The campaign then hauls south at 80 mph – a legal speed in this vast state – covering 180 miles to arrive for a 20-minute pit-stop rally at a main-street cafe in tiny Manhattan, population 1,600. "I'm buoyed by the support we've received from people just like you," Quist says. "I'm riding the blue wave!" With a bundle of small-dollar checks under his arm, it's out the door and rolling on toward a windswept rally with students at Montana State University, who chant for him, "Rob Quist! Rob Quist!"

Quist is no stranger to cheering crowds or life on the road. A professional musician who has played for audiences as diverse as Hee Haw and CBGB, Quist is most famous for picking guitar and banjo in the Mission Mountain Wood Band, Montana's iconic "electric bluegrass" act that shared 1970s stages with the likes of Merle Haggard, Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley. Quist continues a solo career in a folksier vein – recent songs include "A Lady Called Montana" and ".45 Caliber Man" – and he tends to a small ranch in the Flathead Valley, south of Glacier National Park. The campaign's endless five-event days, crisscrossing a state the size of Japan, seem to energize rather than exhaust Quist. "This is not work for me," he says with a wry smile. "This is the best."

Square-shouldered, with a trim black mustache, Quist cuts an imposing figure: He stands six feet five in cowboy boots. And that's not counting the loft of the trademark cowboy hat he wears even to political debates. But Quist's tenor voice and still-waters charisma draw in an audience on issues like expanding Medicare, protecting public lands from developers and fighting predatory lenders. "These are the type of loans you pay on 'em and you pay on 'em and they don't go down. They just go up," he tells students. "This is just not right."

In a simpler world, Quist would be playing shows with his trusty Takamine guitar – years of his pick work have dug a hole through the soundboard. "I call that my Willie Nelson badge," he says with a laugh. A reluctant politician, he got a push into politics from friend and former governor Brian Schweitzer, another Big Sky populist. "He told me, 'Rob, you can do this. Who better than you to represent the state of Montana? You've been doing this all your life.' "

Eventually, Quist tells me, he threw his "well-traveled hat" into the ring because the political pendulum has "swung as far to the right at it's ever swung" in his lifetime. "I want to be part of the movement to bring it back," he says. "And with greater force. That's why I'm here."

The Democratic Party lost power in Washington, D.C., because it lost touch with rural America – where voters who felt abandoned by the party returned the favor. As recently as 2008, Democrats earned 45 percent of the rural vote nationally; in 2016, that fell to just 34 percent.

Quist has a shot to win in Montana because he is not only listening to rural voters – he's also making them his base. To secure the nomination, he barnstormed 40 of Montana's far-flung counties – talking up his love for wild spaces and his youth on a ranch in remote Cut Bank, near the Canadian border. The Democratic Party had died out in many of these places, but Quist says, "Being a rural Montanan, I felt like that was where my support was going to be."

Quist's commitment to party building has won him a cheerleader in the state's Democratic senator, Jon Tester, who will face his own tough election in 2018. Tester gave a shout-out to Quist at the annual Mansfield Metcalf Democratic Party dinner in mid-March. "Stand up, Quist – would ya stand up?" Tester barked from a convention stage in Helena. "I want you to look at this guy," the senator told the crowd. "He's a real Montanan, with real Montana values." He salutes Quist for stirring "a passion that we've not seen across this state."

Running in a party beset by infighting between idealists and pragmatists, Quist offers an easy synthesis: He sings the virtues of Medicare for all, even as he touts nuts-and-bolts improvements to Obamacare such as making hospitals publish sticker prices for their procedures. The Democratic base has bought in. Small-dollar grassroots donors – who have elevated the 2017 House special elections into a high form of political resistance against the Trump administration – have flooded Quist's campaign war chest. "We just crested $2 million today," he tells me with a degree of amazement. And the most popular politician in America – Bernie Sanders – will be arriving to stump for a kindred spirit, who Sanders says will stand up to "the billionaire class."

Despite capturing the hearts and minds of the Democratic grassroots, Quist is getting no love from the national party.

The indifference from Washington, D.C., is hard to square against the party's stated ideals for reviving its political fortunes: Quist is seeking statewide election in the fourth-largest state in the union – campaigning in towns that haven't seen this kind of attention from Democrats in decades. But he has not received a phone call from new Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, who won office in February vowing to compete "in every ZIP code" across the country, and insisting Democrats must invest in "rural outreach."

And Quist is one of just a handful of Democrats to campaign for a House seat in 2017. But he also hasn't heard from Ben Ray Luján, the New Mexico congressman who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – whose job it is to expand the ranks of House Democrats. Quist strains to recall any official party contact. "I guess I've spoken to the regional director for the DCCC – just briefly in the primary," he says. "Really, that's it."

With national Democrats on the sidelines, the Republican Party is sparing no expense to win in Montana on May 25th. The National Republican Campaign Committee and a constellation of GOP Super PACs have "nationalized" the race – launching millions in attack ads to strafe Quist in the service of Gianforte, who has raised $1.6 million on his own.

Zinke, the outgoing Republican representative, is a former Navy SEAL commander – the kind of politician who didn't need backup. Gianforte is cut from different cloth. He fumbled his 2016 bid for governor – running nearly 10 points behind Donald Trump in Montana. The Democratic incumbent with a Deadwood name, Gov. Steve Bullock, won by skewering Gianforte as an outsider – a "New Jersey multimillionaire" – who was a threat to the state's storied public lands. In fact, Gianforte sued the state in 2009, seeking to close down a fishing easement near his mansion on the East Gallatin River. With a net worth measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars – gains from selling a cloud-computing company to Oracle – Gianforte gave the impression of attempting to buy the governor's mansion, spending $5 million of his own fortune on the race. (The Gianforte campaign did not respond to interview requests or other queries from Rolling Stone.)

During my April visit, the national GOP's anti-Quist ad blitz is all but inescapable. I can't turn on the news without seeing attacks funded by the NRCC, the Congressional Leadership Fund – a Super PAC controlled by Paul Ryan and billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson – or the NRA Political Victory Fund. Over dark music, one ad intones that Quist is "out of tune" with Montana, and tries to hang the Democrats' minority House leader like a millstone around his neck. "Rob Quist talks folky, but his record is more Nancy Pelosi than Montana." Other ads dredge up Quist's past tax troubles. The NRA accuses Quist of backing a gun registry – fighting words in Montana.

The unanswered attacks are taking a toll, as I learn over breakfast in downtown Great Falls, a city of 60,000 astride the Missouri River. Brian's Top Notch Cafe is a no-frills diner festooned with Evel Knievel memorabilia where everybody says, "You betcha." One customer, in a maroon baseball cap, tells me he just flew in from wintering in Arizona and hasn't been following the election. But when I mention Quist's name, he pipes in with a perfect paraphrase of the GOP attack: "Oh, you mean that out-of-touch liberal with San Francisco values?" A Gianforte supporter who sports a gray mustache says he can't back "that Quist" because he's a "two-bit musician" and "a deadbeat," adding, "He doesn't pay his taxes. He's living off Social Security. How's he supposed to take care of the rest of us?"

In addition to the air war, the Republican Party is also hitting Quist on the ground – sending an A-team of surrogates to stump against him. On the day after I rode with Quist in his rented Winnebago, Trump Jr. arrived to campaign in the northwest corner of the state at a rally at the Glacier Park International Airport. He was joined by Zinke as well as the state's Republican senator, Steve Daines. Attended by some 400 party faithful, many in blazers or pearls, the rally is staged in a private hangar – the parking spot of a gleaming Citation CJ4, a 10-passenger private jet I'm told belongs to local millionaire Raymon Thompson, a member of the Koch donor network.

The full-squad assembly overshadows the ostensible headliner, Gianforte – who voters of all stripes will tell you, often through gritted teeth, is "not well liked." In his governor's race, Gianforte had distanced himself from Trump in personal terms; Gianforte is a bald man and insisted, "I don't do the comb-over." But today Gianforte presents himself as a Trump loyalist, promising to "work for Montana and with Donald Trump." Gianforte is a halting public speaker, and the big laugh line in his speech today – calling Quist "Nancy Pelosi in a cowboy hat" – isn't even his; it's cribbed from an NRCC blogger.

By contrast with the candidate, the president's son campaigns with a polish that's likely to make him a fixture of GOP politics for a generation. Dressed in a black Simms angler zip-up, worn over a preppy blue button-down shirt, Trump Jr. stands comfortably before a giant American flag, smiling out at the sea of MAGA hats.

Barely mentioning Gianforte, Trump Jr. touts his dad instead. "When you look at what my father's been able to do," he says, "I feel like it's more than the prior two terms of a president." Then he takes a swing at Quist. "When I see the opponent we're running against: Wait a minute – that's a socialist in Montana?! It seems kinda weird." Trump Jr. presents the special election in stark, personal terms. "It's going to be viewed as a referendum on Trump," he warns. "Let's show him and the rest of the world, and certainly the rest of the country, that this wasn't a one-time thing in November."

The Montana special election has laid bare a strategic disconnect between the Democratic Party's base and the DCCC. And it underscores just how much work remains to rebuild a robust and effective DNC – the Democrats' top committee, responsible for keeping all parts of the party working in concert.

Montana has demonstrated, on one hand, the free-spending, go-for-broke ethos of the Democratic grassroots – activists eager to charge, uphill, into any battle against the Trump administration. Part of this is blood sport; these Democrats want to deliver a painful defeat to the president. But there is also strategic purpose: Victory in a red state would make Republicans in swing districts fear for their political lives in the 2018 midterms – driving a wedge between GOP moderates and a president pressing to advance his extreme agenda.

On the other hand, a cautious DCCC understands its mission as finding the path of least political resistance to rebuild a House majority for Democrats. Eager to keep its powder dry in advance of the crucial 2018 midterms – where the committee has identified dozens of winnable races in traditional swing districts – the DCCC is reticent to follow party activists into expensive red-district fights, where it does not see a clear path to victory. "We want to maximize gains," a DCCC spokesman says, "competing in districts where we have a really good shot to win."

In an ideal world, a well-funded Democratic National Committee might be able to step in where the DCCC chooses not to tread – investing its resources to follow the grassroots' lead and challenge the GOP in races where the political stakes for the party – including the chance to shape a national political narrative – transcend the strategic value of picking up a single House seat.

But the 2017 special House races – replacing members plucked to join Trump's Cabinet from historically safe Republican seats – have created an unlikely political opportunity at a moment when the DNC is cash-poor and still recovering from the bruising intraparty fight that led to Perez securing the chair.

By default, that has placed the DCCC front and center – executing an opaque strategy that is out of step with the promises Perez campaigned on: rebuilding a truly national party and taking the fight to Republicans everywhere. The DCCC spokesman makes plain that the committee doesn't see itself as responsible for implementing a 50-state strategy: "Building up party infrastructure is not the same mission that we have at the DCCC."

During the first special election of 2017 – to replace new CIA director Mike Pompeo in Kansas – the DCCC outraged the party's grassroots, and candidate James Thompson, by sitting out a contest that the GOP nationalized, averting a damaging loss in the Koch brothers' backyard.

Trump had won in Kansas' 4th District by 27 points in November. But Thompson, an Army veteran and civil-rights lawyer in Wichita, waged a campaign much like Quist's. "We were working 15-, 16-hour days, every day, with no breaks," he tells Rolling Stone. Like his campaign platform – "Jobs. Education. Veterans" – Thompson's campaign strategy was simple: "Listen to people that didn't believe anybody was listening to 'em," he says.

The personal touch electrified his campaign, and by the final week, Thompson had reportedly closed the gap to a single point against Republican Ron Estes. The national GOP reacted as you would expect: The NRCC hit the air with an inflammatory TV blitz, accusing Thompson, who is pro-choice, of favoring taxpayer-funded, late-term abortions "even if the parents don't like the gender of their baby." Sen. Ted Cruz campaigned with Estes. Trump and Mike Pence recorded robocalls to rally the base. "It became me against the president, the vice president, the speaker of the House, two senators and the national Republican Party," Thompson says. "Estes was a minor player in his own race."

Democratic grassroots donors, smelling blood in the water, channeled more than $150,000 in last-minute donations to back Thompson. But the DCCC offered only token support: Election Day get-out-the-vote calls. When Republicans moved to nationalize the race, Thompson tells Rolling Stone, "the D-Trip should have jumped in. And they did not. It should be a no-soldier-left-behind mentality. And they left us behind." The GOP blitz was decisive. Estes won the race by 6.8 points.

In conversations with Rolling Stone, the DCCC defends its decision to hold fire in Kansas. "If you're looking at a seat where the incumbent always wins by 25 points, that's not going to be a top target – or probably a target at all," a spokesman says. The DCCC offers high praise for Thompson: "He ran an incredible race." But the spokesman insists the race was unwinnable: "Nobody has been able to give a good analysis of what we should have done to close the gap by seven points."

The disconnect between the grassroots and the DCCC boils down to a different view about money. The congressional committee does not think of cash as a renewable resource. Its coffers are stocked with hard money – much of it raised the old-fashioned way, by members dialing for dollars from donors. Democrats have a persistent cash disadvantage to the RNCC, which out-raised the DCCC $36 million to $31 million in the first quarter of 2017.

The committee declined to make its executive director available for this story, but a former senior DCCC official, who has had to make difficult choices about which candidates the committee chooses to back, offers an insider's perspective: "It's a zero-sum question on the financial side," he says. If the DCCC had spent big on Thompson, it would mean "telling a promising candidate next fall that you didn't have money for them – because it was spent on Kansas 12 months earlier."

But this logic – strategic surrender today for greater victories tomorrow – goes over like a lead balloon with the Democratic base, which sees campaign cash as limited only by the quality of the candidate and the intensity of the fight. One of the party's most influential activists is unsparing in his assessment of the old-school approach that has left Democrats crippled in Washington. "The party is broken and irrelevant – until proven otherwise," says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, which is emerging as a grassroots giant in the Trump era, helping steer millions in small-dollar donations to candidates. "Instead of wondering why these groups aren't acting," Moulitsas says, "we're taking the lead and mobilizing our base."

When I reached him in early May, DNC chair Perez didn't paint a rosy picture, admitting that much about the party is broken. He sounded an apologetic note that the DNC is early in its reset – "I'm nine weeks into this," he says – and lacks the resources to fully implement his goals. (In its latest filing, the DNC reported just $10.5 million in cash and $1.8 million in debt.)

Perez wants to move away from a DNC that folds its tent after each presidential cycle – and then "we scratch our heads and ask, 'Why do we do so poorly in midterms?' " He envisions the DNC as a nationwide organizing force that also makes investments to tip strategic races.

Perez points to the special election in Georgia, where the party's grassroots, the DCCC and the DNC have unified in the fight to elect Jon Ossoff – a 30-year-old former congressional staffer – to the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Clinton lost here by only two points in November – a margin that makes it vulnerable in the DCCC's calculus to anti-Trump backlash. With the DCCC taking charge of the field effort, and Ossoff raising more than $8 million – including more than $1.4 million from the Daily Kos community – the party came within two points of winning the seat outright in the April primary. The race is headed to a runoff in June.

"We're rebuilding the party," Perez tells Rolling Stone. "But we can't land the plane and shut it down. We have to repair the plane in midair."

With the 2018 elections already rounding into view, the stakes for getting the party, its committees and its activists pulling in the same direction could not be higher. Democrats have a clear shot at taking back the House. Putting a positive spin on the Kansas defeat, Perez points to its single-digit margin as a bellwether of an anti-Trump wave. "If we continue to see 20-point swings in congressional races," he says, "when we get to the midterm elections, that's a formula for a Democratic takeover of the U.S. House."

The dividends would be enormous: Victory in the House would create a roadblock to Trump's legislative agenda and give Democrats subpoena power to cast light on Trump's Russia connections or myriad business conflicts. The party could even initiate impeachment.

Democrats need to capture two dozen seats to take the chamber. Historically, a swing of 24 seats away from a first-term president is not unusual; since 1982, the average loss is 28 seats. But the challenge is greater than it might seem. Republicans have structural advantages that create a sea wall against a Democratic wave. First, due to extreme gerrymandering, the median House seat now leans three points more Republican than the national average. Second, the midterm electorate in recent years has trended disproportionately older and whiter than the electorate in presidential years, favoring the GOP. Third, purple America is shrinking. Geographic polarization – trending blood-red in West Virginia and deep blue in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico – has winnowed the number of true swing districts by more than half in just the past 20 years, leaving a field of only 72 seats, as measured by the Cook Political Report.

The DCCC has defined the battlefield even more narrowly – releasing a target list of 59 districts. This includes 23 that elected Republicans to the House despite giving Clinton majority support. This is a glass-half-full metric: It signals that a path to victory in the House travels through potentially friendly territory. But it underscores that the DCCC failed to maximize gains in 2016 – picking up just six seats despite Clinton's 3-million-vote popular win. "It was a really bad year for the party," says David Wasserman, who handicaps the House for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The DCCC's steely special-election strategy may be impervious to the passions of the grassroots. But after top Democratic officials in Montana called out the party – on the front page of The New York Times – for its failure to engage, the committee began to rethink the Quist race. In an April 20th story titled "Moved by Georgia, Democrats in Montana Say, It's Our Turn," Gov. Bullock was direct: "National folks should be coming in here. It is a winnable race." Keenan, the head of the state Democratic Party, had a message so clear she said it twice: "Get in the game, get in the game."

That same day, the DCCC transferred $200,000 to the Montana party, which the Quist camp could tap to boost its own ad budget. The DCCC's orientation to Montana appeared to change more dramatically still in the aftermath of meetings among Perez, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Luján, chair of the DCCC. The three men strategized on coordinating Democratic efforts – "to make sure we're not bowling alone," Perez told me, "that we're taking advantage of our synergies."

The Montana seat is an obvious case where an investment in a hot congressional race today could make the defense of Tester's Senate seat an easier lift in 2018. On May 3rd, the DCCC opened its wallet in earnest, pouring another $400,000 into the Quist race. The DNC sent a staffer to Montana to work on digital strategy, and the national party is also paying for a social-media campaign targeting likely voters with reminders to return their absentee ballots.

That's not to say that Montana is suddenly a fair fight. Compared to national Republicans and their Super PAC allies, the Democrats are weeks late and millions short. And the GOP continues to escalate – deploying Vice President Pence to stump with Gianforte in Billings. But the May 25th election no longer smells like Kansas. With the party's support, and a grassroots war chest that has swelled to nearly $4 million, Quist has closed the gap to single digits in the polls.

After suffering the GOP's opening volley, Quist has come out blazing on television. The NRA's attacks, hitting him as a gun grabber, have stung – because they played off a rare misstep by the political novice. In an interview with a Bozeman reporter, Quist floated the idea of a registry for assault weapons. As he later explains to the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, he was thinking of military rifles – actual machine guns – not realizing that owners of such weapons already have to be registered. (This nuance is lost on the NRA, which grades Quist with an F.) Quist says he's an "old school" marksman who grew up in the tradition of "bringing meat home to the table." In fact, he tells the hunters' group, "I've got guns that are much older than the number of years Gianforte has been in the state." To make the point, Quist holds up between his thumb and forefinger a brass shell casing of a round he recently fired.

He wasn't hunting antelope, elk or mule deer, Quist says. His quarry was more unconventional – a television set, airing that ubiquitous NRA ad. The TV's destruction forms the basis for a spot Quist has placed in high rotation with the tag line: "I won't stand by while a millionaire from New Jersey tries to attack my Montana values."

Quist has other baggage. After a botched surgery left him hobbled, and the housing collapse slashed his wife's income as a realtor, the Quists fell behind on their taxes, resulting in several liens that have only recently been settled. But on the trail, Quist transforms his struggles into a populist hook. "People should not have to go bankrupt in the greatest country on Earth just because of their medical conditions," he says. "I was at a point where I probably should have declared bankruptcy, but that's not the way I was raised."

But Gianforte has his own difficulties. He has lived in Montana for more than two decades and built a hugely successful business – creating 500 jobs in the state. But not even the stubbly Fu Manchu he used to wear convinced locals that he's a true Montanan. "He's not a stater," says Steve Schindler, 65, vice president of the Montana Bowhunters Association, who worries Gianforte won't protect public lands. "The New Jersey aspect of it really shouldn't be an issue. But it is. It is an issue."

Gianforte's record of suing to block access to a fishing easement on his land – in addition to donations his foundation made to a Bozeman group that advocates the transfer of federal lands to private control – has given life to a narrative that he wants to fence off Montana's wild spaces, or sell them off to the highest bidder. Gianforte denies this. But he has lined up behind Trump at the very moment the president is threatening to remove federal protection from dozens of national monuments – including Montana's Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a spectacular area of limestone cliffs and cottonwood forests.

In this context, many voters worry that Gianforte's business background could make him an ally for developers who are eager to exploit the state's rich timber, coal and oil reserves. A review of Gianforte's investment portfolio – valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars – reveals large holdings of Big Carbon (ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Duke Energy), Big Banks (UBS, Deutsche Bank), Big Tobacco (Altria, Reynolds) and Big Pharma (Eli Lilly, Pfizer).

Gianforte's religious views are extreme – even for the Republican Party. He's a creationist, and his foundation paid to install the tyrannosaurus exhibit at a local biblical "museum" that purports the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs not only lived among humans but were also passengers on Noah's ark. That Bible story is a touchstone for Gianforte. In a 2015 speech, he declared that "the concept of retirement is not biblical," pointing to the example of Noah. "How old was Noah when he built the ark? Six hundred. He wasn't, like, cashing Social Security checks. He wasn't hanging out. He was working."

In an election of contrasts, this perhaps is the greatest: The populist is engaging Montana voters on an hourly basis, while the millionaire seems to fear the public, shaking even friendly Republican hands at his private airport rally from behind a steel barricade. "How you conduct this election is how you're going to conduct yourself when you're in office," Quist says. "He's not listening to the stories of everyday Montanans."

Quist's easy connection to state voters is on full display at the education rally he holds at Montana State. Braced against the wind in a Carhartt jacket, he warns that Gianforte supports privatizing K-12 schools and that the millionaire has funded a group that calls public education "a failed experiment." To the college students in the crowd, he says, "My opponent stands with the D.C. politicians and the special interests that want to cut Pell grants and make it even harder to pay for college."

At the end of the rally – after Quist's signature closing line, "Stand with me, Montana, and I will stand up for you" – a retired schoolteacher named Betsy, who wears fuzzy earmuffs against the cold, approaches me to say she's found her candidate. She is impressed with the depth the musician brings to his politics. "He has brains," she says. But most of all, she can't resist the look of this Montana Democrat in the white hat: "Quist just fits the picture."