Democratic candidates

Of the Democratic candidates in this photo, only Gov. Steve Bullock, center, with microphone, and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, far right, won re-election last fall. That left a question of who would rise from the Montana Democratic Party's bench to run in future elections.

Gary Marshall, BMGphotos.com

HELENA — It felt like a fog lowered on the Democratic Party's election-night watch party Nov. 8 in the ballroom of a Helena hotel as attendees kept consulting their phones for updated results.

A couple of large televisions along the south wall showed what many thought was impossible: Donald J. Trump winning the presidential election. Statewide, things weren’t looking much better. An early tally of votes posted on the Secretary of State’s website just after 8 p.m. showed many Republican candidates ahead in federal and statewide races, and the leads for all but the governorship just kept growing as the night went on.

On the morning after, the damage was more clear. Democrats went from holding all but one statewide elected office to clinging to a lone seat, the governor’s. They also lost the race for Montana’s only U.S. House seat. While that wasn’t unexpected, the 18-point defeat was steeper than projected.

Many were left asking what happened and, perhaps more importantly, what did having so many candidates previously thought of as popular summarily defeated mean for the Montana Democratic Party going forward?

The question of who was left on the party’s bench to run for office was asked much earlier than anyone expected, starting Dec. 13 when then-Rep. Ryan Zinke was named as Trump's pick to be Secretary of the Interior.

What's next for Quist?

Creston musician Rob Quist won an eight-way primary in March, beating out the more politically experienced state Representatives Kelly McCarthy of Billings and Amanda Curtis of Butte. Democrats veered toward Quist for a handful of reasons, party insiders said. His name recognition was hard to deny after touring the state for years with the popular Mission Mountain Wood Band. He had rural roots. And he was hand-picked by the man who perhaps holds the most sway in the state Democratic party — former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Quist ended up losing by 6 percentage points to wealthy Bozeman businessman Republican Greg Gianforte, whom many also called a flawed candidate even before he allegedly assaulted a reporter on the eve of the election.

Contacted last week, Schweitzer said he still stands by Quist as a solid choice, though after his delinquent taxes and other financial issues were reported, some questioned if someone who had already been vetted via previous elections would have been a better pick.

“He is and was a good pick for the House seat,” Schweitzer said. “You choose an ordinary Montanan and then having $7 to $8 million of out of state money come crashing down on your head, that would end anyone.”

Quist said Friday that after the election he rested for a few days, “but then I woke up on Tuesday morning with a new sense of resolve and purpose.”

While he said it’s too soon to say what his plans are for future elections, Quist said the House race “felt more like the first quarter in the game for me.”

He’s traveling to Chicago next week to speak at The People's Summit, a gathering of progressives where Bernie Sanders is headlining this year.

“I have definitely turned a corner in terms of wanting to expose more about and really gain more knowledge and try to speak more about what is really going on in our government,” Quist said. “When I started all this, my staff said everything else kind of shrinks by comparison, and I see what they mean now. It’s such an important thing we do.”

If anyone’s wondering, Schweitzer said he's out of politics.

"I’m an old guy and I’m a businessman," the 61-year-old said. "I was in business when I ran for governor, I served two terms and I walked away. I think that I believe that is what our founding fathers thought the government would be."

Deepening the bench

The Montana Democratic Party is launching an effort to cultivate a new class of candidates, called the Blue Bench Project.

Party executive director Nancy Keenan said Democrats last January began discussing how to capitalize on momentum around the state spurred by a backlash to Trump’s election. An estimated 10,000 turned out for the Women’s March in Helena, organized in opposition to much of the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign. Since last fall six Democratic county central committees — Mineral, Madison, Glacier, Sweet Grass, Valley and Roosevelt — have reactivated and seven more have expressed interest.

Turning that energy into candidates will be a main focus of Blue Bench. Getting people to show up for a rally is one thing, but running for public office is an entirely different beast.

“This is where you have to connect that elections matter,” Keenan said. “You take people in the state that actually want to run for office themselves to actually change policies to what they want to see.”

Democrats are on a tight timeline for municipal elections. The deadline to file for these offices is June 19, but even after getting sidetracked by the special election, the party has a pool of candidates.

“All over the state we’ve gotten folks that have called that said ‘I want to run for my school board, I want to run for my city commission or county commission.’ It’s been organic that way,” Keenan said.

In years past, the party had focused recruitment efforts through its Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a wing of the party that helps Democrats running for the Legislature.

“Before the party was focusing primarily on legislative races. Then you realize when you recruit for the legislature you need people who have served in local offices,” Keenan said. “When you think about building a bench you build it from the ground up and you build it from those municipal and local offices around the state.”

Looking toward 2020

While the party works to build for the future, more immediate races are on the mind of party leaders. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is gearing up to fiercely defend his seat next fall, but it’s unclear at this point who will run for statewide offices in 2020.

The conversation would be different if last fall's candidates like Jesse Laslovich, Melissa Romano and Monica Lindeen had won their respective races for state auditor, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state. Laslovich had been the top attorney in the auditor's office under two-term auditor Lindeen. Romano was a schoolteacher with no political experience, though she is now considering a bid for the Legislature, party insiders said.

Jeremy Johnson, a political professor at Carroll College, said that losing a race like Laslovich or Romano did doesn’t necessarily hurt a candidate’s future chances, and in some ways might help by increasing their name recognition.

Of the Republicans who won statewide offices last fall, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton lost primary bids for Montana's U.S. House seat and governor. Auditor Matt Rosendale also lost a primary bid for the House seat. Attorney General Tim Fox, who won re-election, had a previous failed bid for the job.

While most party insiders say building a list of names for the 2020 elections isn’t a valuable exercise at this point, one thing many agree on is the party needs a renewed focus on rural areas.

“The advice I would give to the Democrats is that I would really like to see them spend more time out across Montana,” Lindeen said. “They need to visit Eastern Montana and rural areas, and not just talk to folks about what they believe in but listen to and talk about what their concerns are.”

Candidates from rural areas

McCarthy, a state representative from Billings who lost out to Quist in the U.S. House nominating convention, is a potential candidate who talks about his rural roots with ease. His grandfather ranched near Acton in northwestern Yellowstone County and years ago donated the land for the post office and bar.

“We’d go in to get the mail and grandpa would get a shot and I’d get a Pepsi,” he said.

McCarthy’s grandparents and their neighbors were all Farmers Union stock who voted Democratic, but “somehow in a generation we lost them,” he said.

He believes it’s not so important for the party to find candidates who are from rural areas, but to focus on playing up why its platforms benefit farmers and ranchers.

“I think we just have to get out there and start having those conversations and say ‘What are we missing?’ It’s hard to be from Montana or have any roots in this state and not have a farm or ranch somewhere in your past. Maybe we’re not just touting our rural bona fides enough.”

McCarthy last week said he isn’t sure what his plans are for the future. “If you could say where I’d be in a year, you’d know more than me.”

The same group of people who got him to jump into the U.S. House race want to see him run against Gianforte in 2018, he said. That team did some legwork earlier this year and determined he had a shot at the seat.

“We’re having the conversation right now and they would like me to run against Gianforte in 2018, but I have not yet made that decision” McCarthy said.

His wife is an Australian citizen, and that presents some logistical challenges.

“I’ve got to decide whether I’m going to put the state of Montana or my family first. I am one of those people who really likes their wife and wants to live with them. That’s where my happiness lies. If it wasn’t for that I’d be like ‘Shoot, let’s do this thing. I think we can win it.”

That atmosphere has Lindeen frustrated with the state of politics as well. She is doing consulting work now and unsure if she'll run for office again.

“It’s so nasty. I’m frustrated with this culture that seems to be pervasive where if you are a Republican or a Democrat somehow you look at the other side as being terrible or evil somehow. We all have points of view and we need to come back to this more civilized culture of listening to different points of view.”

A farm team

Statewide candidates have to strike a balance between listening to all and defending the national party, though.

“You can’t just run away from your party,” Johnson said. “Jon Tester has actually been very skillful at that. Republicans, like any good political party, will try to hone in on the weakest parts of opponents. They will do everything they can do identify Montana Democratic politicians with Nancy Pelosi or other national Democrats. No matter what the Montana state Democratic Party does, it cannot escape being associated with the national party.”

Though the model seems to be skewing toward candidates with little or no political experience — think Gianforte, Quist and Trump, who rose to the presidency without ever holding so much as a school board seat — Democrats still put stock in developing a farm team. Johnson said that approach could make sense.

“In the U.S. and also Montana we tend to elect a candidate and then there’s a reaction to those types of candidates. And there could be Trump fatigue. Candidates who are not like Trump at all could do better in subsequent elections.”

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.