Even before America’s most prominent one got punched in the face, it has not been a banner week for white nationalists.
In D.C., white separatist Richard Spencer and anyone else who shared his supremacist sentiments were disallowed from attending an event for people who self-identify as “deplorable.” Then, of course, Spencer was clocked in the face by a protester on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
And 2,300 miles away, the 6,000 residents of Whitefish, Montana, successfully pushed out resident Spencer and the “neo-Nazi troll storm,” as Yahoo! News called them, who had been harassing the town’s 100 Jewish residents.
Maybe Spencer and that “troll storm” should’ve seen it coming. Because two months ago, Montanans in the State House District 10 minutes away from Whitefish had a chance to vote for a man with ties to Spencer himself. All they had to do was vote Republican in one of America’s most conservative states.
In a state that Donald Trump won by over 20 percentage points, residents in Montana House District 3 voted for Democrat Zac Perry, a substitute teacher and liquor store clerk.
Perry’s opponent Taylor Rose was formerly the vice president of Youth for Western Civilization, a now defunct nonprofit dedicated to fighting “multiculturalism.” The Anti-Defamation League said the group “has close ties to White Supremacists” and served to offer a “highly desirable platform to white supremacist Richard Spencer by inviting him to speak on two different college campuses.” At one of the speeches for YWC, Spencer—who called himself “a fan” of the “fantastic organization”—argued against affirmative action, claiming “intelligence is heritable.”
Five years later, Spencer was trying to take over Whitefish and Rose was angling for a state House seat just across district lines—as a Republican, in a red state.
And that scared the hell out of Zac Perry, the sitting state representative in House District 3. After all, in 2014, he’d just won by 48 votes.
“I was very worried. My first win was by a plurality. Here we were going into that race in a conservative district where Republicans have done very well,” Perry told The Daily Beast.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Rose had a bit of a national following on the far-right. He’d worked as a staff writer for far-right fringe website WorldNetDaily before his run. Plus, while Donald Trump barnstormed the country reactivating white supremacist figures like David Duke, national news organizations started to write stories with titles like “Trumpism Goes Local” profiling Rose.
In those stories, he repeatedly insisted he’s not a white nationalist—despite being labeled one in a detailed biography by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Rose didn’t respond to an email by The Daily Beast about the topic at press time.)
“It was very concerning, the assets that he had,” said Perry.
Even local Republican legislators like Montana state Senator Dee Brown started throwing in support. Perry’s best accidental get-out-the-vote vehicle consisted of talking to customers at his liquor store.
Meanwhile, Rose had managed to mainstream his ideas through what Perry called “code words.”
“There’s so many different names. They use so many different code words,” said Perry. “That was one of the things that motivated me: That type of ideology, I did not want represented in my community. I did not want that to take root. That got me up early every morning, the possibility of that taking root.”
That’s what motivated Philip, too. Philip campaigned for Perry. (He works at Columbia Falls High School in Montana, so he didn’t want to use his full name with Spencer’s “troll storm” so close by. The Daily Beast confirmed Philip worked for Perry’s campaign.)
He was worried Perry might have the same problem as Stacey Schnebel, a Democrat who ran against a Republican county commissioner named Phil Mitchell.
“She ran on a bit of an environmental platform. She lost big against a guy named Phil Mitchell, whose whole platform was ‘I don’t have to debate you. I’m a Republican. You know what I stand for,’” said Philip. “And that worked.”
So Perry had work to do. And, in rural Montana, getting the word out might be harder work than anywhere else.
“There’s no cell service past West Glacier. It’s a strange district. You can end up in a lot of different places. It’s not easy to go door-to-door there,” said Philip. “The white nationalists were thinking Zac was weak.”
Turns out Perry wasn’t weak, but he needed to knock on a lot of doors—an enormous pain in a district where the distance from one door to another can be dozens of miles away.
“Our ground game had to be much stronger than in the past. We had to go one on one. We had to get on doorsteps. Despite the fact that it’s a huge district, I thought, ‘if we do that, we have a chance,’” he said.
“I’m a guy that’s from the community. I grew up here. I represent the values that reflect the community that I live in. I need to make sure everybody in the community knows that. “
Perry and his volunteers kept encountering the same problem: Winning over voters who would traditionally see a big “R” on a ballot and reflexively fill out the box next to it.
“Folks in the community would bring his name up—that he’s a Republican—but not his ties with some unsavory organizations or the unique ideology that he has,” he said.
The Perry campaign anticipated a nail-biter. It was only 48 votes last time, remember, and the state would be eager to turn out for the Republican at the top of the ballot. Enthusiasm for Trump could cost him the election on its own.
But the door-knocking around mountains and rivers and places without cellphone service paid off. Perry won with 53 percent of the vote. Not a landslide, but a majority—and a lot more than 47 votes.
“It was a relief,” he’s said. “It’s so refreshing to see that response in the community.”
It was a rejection of a guy labeled a white nationalist by the SPLC who had temporarily co-opted a Republican ticket. It wasn’t a punch in the face, but it was probably more impactful in the long run.
“That’s been one of the best things coming out of the last few months. Not just winning an election against Taylor Rose, but watching the Flathead [region of Montana] come out against the rhetoric of Richard Spencer and for the Jewish community in Whitefish—seeing people call out the hatred and bigotry for what it is, and doing so publicly,” said Perry.
That’s the big lesson Perry wants the country to take away from the spectacular failure of a white nationalist coup in Montana in this last month: Almost nobody wants one. Not even Republicans in one of the reddest states in the country.
“When people think that we’re moving backwards toward a society that is amenable to hatred, you can look what happened to northwest Montana,” said Perry. “Those beliefs are rejected and not acceptable, and as a community we can rise up and attack those things from the root.”