Democrats should be disappointed by Republican Greg Gianforte’s win over Rob Quist in the recently-concluded Montana special election. The concept of moral victories in winner-take-all political races is unpersuasive and particularly so in this case. Yes, Quist got a much higher percentage of the vote than Hillary Clinton did in November. But part of that improvement likely came courtesy of Gianforte’s assault on a reporter on the eve of the election. Simply put, one cannot discern a Democratic wave on the horizon in the wake of an over 6 point loss to a ruffian in a state with a Democratic governor and senator.
For progressive activists, Quist’s loss is particularly troubling. Quist followed the script that we on the left edge of the Democratic Party have been writing. He held rallies with Bernie Sanders. He supports Medicare-for-all. The Tax Reform section of his website touches all the economic populist bases:
As a small business owner and entrepreneur, Rob understands the burden of an unfair tax system that makes it harder for small business owners to thrive. He will make tax reform a priority, working to close tax loopholes for corporations that ship American jobs overseas and rewriting the tax code to support Montana’s small businesses, workers and families.
By contrast, his multi-millionaire opponent came across as a dissembling creature of the 1%. This was most evident when he promised lobbyists that he supports “repeal and replace” just after assuring skeptical Montanans that he hadn’t yet decided whether he would support the House Republican health care bill.
Yet the Democrat lost and by an uncomfortably large margin. Some possible explanations: Folksinger Quist was a fringe candidate. Montana knew Gianforte better. The Democratic National Committee got involved too late. Most seriously, the Montana news media raised legitimate questions about the propriety of Quist’s finances based in part on unpaid state tax liens filed against his property and claims by contractors for unpaid wages.
These are not the kinds of excuses that progressives should feel comfortable making. With respect to concerns about Quist’s quirky persona and lower name recognition, we have consistently argued that voters care more about policy than personality and that authenticity trumps renown. Regarding the DNC’s standoffishness, the left views it as neither credible nor effective. Accordingly, its failure to assist Quist might have mattered only had he been unable to raise sufficient funds to be competitive. But this was not the case. Likewise, Quist’s financial peccadilloes surely didn’t help him but they probably didn’t sink him either.
So what happened? The Montana result demonstrates anew that identity politics and economic grievances against Democrats retain a powerful grip in white rural states. Even some reliably Democratic Native Americans probably voted for the Republican in light of his endorsement by the Crow Tribe which is experiencing economic dislocation due to declining coal production.
Progressives contend that the Democratic Party’s recent woes stem from its embrace of Wall Street over Main Street and the secondary decision to target voters solely by group identity rather than primarily by economic interests. Democrats can only return to power, we insist, when they propound credible solutions to the privation caused by globalism and income and wealth stratification. Quist’s loss suggests that, in much of the country at least, this strategy may not bear immediate fruit.