BOZEMAN, Montana—They called it the “Weekend with Bernie.”
Senator Bernie Sanders criss-crossed Montana for a rapid-fire series of events over the weekend to boost Rob Quist, the folk-singing Democrat on the ticket for Thursday’s special election to replace now-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, for the state’s seat in the House of Representatives.
“Rob and I are going to do everything we can to bury that horrific, disgusting piece of legislation that passed two weeks ago,” Sanders bellowed, referring to the recent House passage of the American Health Care Act, during the duo’s final stop together in Bozeman on Sunday morning.
From Missoula to Butte to Billings and Bozeman, the primary rallying cry for this race was health care—and the skyrocketing costs for care that could result if AHCA is signed into law.
During the second-to-last stop of the tour in Butte on Saturday, a union stronghold that was formerly a copper boomtown throughout the end of the 19th century, some 2,500 or more poured into the Butte Civic Center in the late afternoon.
Quist, lanky and soft-spoken, began his brief address by telling the crowd that Butte had special significance for him because he had opened for the Beach Boys and Kenny Rogers there. In a not-so-distant past life, he toured with his Mission Mountain Wood Band, making him somewhat of a household name throughout Big Sky Country.
“I call it the un-American health care plan,” Quist said of AHCA bashfully smiling and tipping his cowboy-hat-adorned head.
He and Sanders both championed this campaign as a people-built machine; a populist small-donor driven effort to shake up Washington, D.C., in the era of Donald Trump. And they made Quist’s opponent, Greg Gianforte, an effective foil, highlighting his multimillionaire status and his on-again, off-again support for AHCA.
One of the few public events Gianforte had in the state recently was with Donald Trump Jr., helping to cement his status in the state as closely aligned with the current administration. Otherwise, his campaign has been blanketing the airwaves with attack ads targeted at Quist.
The most recent one, funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, references Quist’s “long pattern of bad debts and tax liens.” Quist for his part has argued that his money troubles are due to a gallbladder operation that went wrong in 1996.
The ad also tries to tie Quist to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, something that Quist laughingly referred to on the trail on Sunday.
He brought up the fact that Gianforte had essentially said he was in bed with Pelosi. “I think I would remember that,” Quist quipped.
In early may, Gianforte was recorded speaking to lobbyists with supportive words about AHCA’s passage saying, “The votes in the House are going to determine whether we get tax reform done, sounds like we just passed a health care thing, which I’m thankful for, sounds like we’re starting to repeal and replace.”
In public, he has offered less outright support for the legislation.
But nonetheless, the remarks became a rallying cry for Quist as he marches toward the May 25 special election.
“This is merely a tax break for the super-rich,” Quist said in Butte. “That’s all it is. In the greatest country on earth, people should not have to declare bankruptcy just because they have a health care issue.”
Montana, as any person in the state would kindly explain, is an interesting electoral experiment. In 2016, the state voted for Trump by a whopping margin of 20 percent but simultaneously elected Democratic governor Steve Bullock who beat none other than Gianforte.
And as the president has been marred by recent scandal, and unkind poll numbers, it’s the next opportunity for a struggling Democratic party to attempt to seize back some kind of power. A recent Gravis poll in the state indicated that Quist was gaining momentum but still behind by around 8 percentage points. (Private polling has recently indicated that the contest is within single digits.)
But Quist has galvanized a small-donor army akin to the wave of support for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. By the end of last week, he had garnered some $5 million in support with average contributions of around $25. Sanders joked in Bozeman on Sunday morning that he was a little jealous of that because his own average contributions were around $27.
Sanders won the Democratic primary in Montana last year and his support was still palpable throughout the weekend. In Butte, he appeared in the form of a giant puppet held aloft by two people in the back of the civic center.
In Bozeman, vendors were offering shirts and hats with the catchphrase “Hindsight is 2020” on them in the hopes that the independent from Vermont would make another run in the next presidential election cycle.
With Sanders speaking after Quist for longer durations of time, the Montana events occasionally felt like warm-up runs for a next act. But Sanders was effective and effusive at making the case for Quist—his bellows and hand gesticulations providing a vivid contrast to the more subdued folk singer.
“The eyes of the country are on the great state of Montana,” Sanders said in Butte. “If you do it here in Montana, we can do it in every state.”
The national Democratic parties had largely ignored the special election in Montana until recent weeks when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee infused the race with an additional $400,000. Many voters in attendance at the weekend’s events with whom The Daily Beast spoke indicated that the national attention is nice but not entirely necessary; that voters in Montana are going to make up their own mind with or without the party’s leadership.
“It’s not uncommon to hear a Montanan say ‘I don’t vote the party, I vote the person,” 69-year-old Butte resident and Quist volunteer Marian Jensen told The Daily Beast on Saturday after she sent another group out to knock on doors for Quist’s campaign.
Jensen, who has also written a series of books called the “Mining City Mysteries,” inspired by Butte’s history, said that “when Democrats win here there is a definite personal element.”
That is exactly the vibe that Quist and his campaign were trying to create—with events that, despite the thousands in attendance, at times felt more like small-scale town halls. Quist would peer out into the crowd under the brim of his cowboy hat at each event and say that he saw people with whom he’d had a personal connection.
His wife, Bonni, spoke before Quist in both Butte and Bozeman, telling the rapt crowd about the importance of women’s rights and how her father, an independent, taught her to carefully research candidates. Quist’s daughter, Halladay, even played a few songs with a band they called “Team Quist and the Berners” in Bozeman on Sunday morning. Quist and Sanders even played a bit of basketball before the Butte event.
It was the politics of the personal, a family affair intended to signal that Quist would fight for the people of his home state.
And for some voters, the personal touch was exactly what they were looking for.
Gary McGowan, a 39-year-old Bozeman father of a precocious 11-year-old girl who asked to hear The Daily Beast’s recording of her father’s interview after it was done, said that he simply trusts Quist on a personal level.
“He wants my kid to be alive tomorrow, he wants me to be alive tomorrow, he wants my mom to be alive tomorrow,” McGowan said. “He connects with real human beings versus Greg [Gianforte] who connects with whoever wants to be in his circle.”
Other voters at the Montana State University event in Bozeman on Sunday questioned Gianforte’s position on evolution. (His foundation once donated to a creationist dinosaur museum.)
Gerald Cole, a 62-year-old originally from Bozeman plainly told The Daily Beast: “You know what, anyone who thinks that man roamed the earth with the dinosaurs in my opinion, is all fucked up.”
As the weekend’s events drew to a close, Quist waited along the sidelines to shake hands with supporters in the crowd.
One woman leaned in over the railing and warned “they’ll try to corrupt you,” referring to the Washington, D.C., establishment.
Quist responded: “I’m ready.”