HELENA — In the weeks leading up to Montana’s special congressional election, Rob Quist and his surrogates fanned out across college campuses throughout the state, hoping to tap into a trove of progressive votes in a place that’s known to elect Democrats while maintaining conservative values as sturdy as the nearby Rocky Mountains.
With just a week left to campaign before the May 25 election, Quist is counting on college-age voters to provide the sliver of ballots he needs to prevail in a nationally watched election for Montana’s open congressional seat, vacant since Ryan Zinke resigned to become U.S. interior secretary.
Quist, a Democrat, is running against Republican Greg Gianforte, a wealthy technology entrepreneur who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year. The high-stakes election has drawn big money, and big names, to the state.
For any Democrat to win Montana, they have to go after every vote — regardless of where they are. And Democrats can usually find lots on college campuses, although the challenge is in getting students to the polls.
This weekend, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will fly in to campaign for Quist in Bozeman and Missoula, home to the state’s largest college campuses.
Montana Democrats hope Sanders will fire up his huge following of “Berners” to rally behind Quist, a banjo-playing cowboy poet who is trying to become Montana’s first Democrat to serve in the U.S. House in two decades.
Sanders also plans stops in the union town of Butte and the state’s largest city, Billings. Sanders won Montana in last year’s Democratic primary, a victory partly fueled by his popularity among millennials.
Despite its image among outsiders as solidly GOP territory, Montana has fiercely independent denizens who regularly elect Democrats to statewide races, although those Democrats usually pledge allegiance to the rural creed of supporting gun rights and being willing to buck the national party. While Donald Trump won the state by a 20 percent margin, Montana voters also re-elected their Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, who beat Gianforte by 4 percentage points.
Quist is running as a populist and political outsider who supports strengthening President Barack Obama’s health care law, not repealing it. He backs abortion rights, same-sex marriage, pay equity for women and lower interest rates for college loans — themes that resonate with younger voters.
Earlier this month, Quist enlisted actress Alyssa Milano and a scene-stealing pet goat, both of whom were unleashed upon the grounds of one of the state’s largest college campuses to help get out the vote. Milano, whose erstwhile TV show “Charmed” is a cult favorite among some college students, roamed dorm halls to register students for absentee ballots and shuttled some to the county elections office to cast ballots ahead of the special election.
In Gallatin County, home to Montana State University in Bozeman, elections officials reported long lines of mostly young people waiting to cast votes after Milano’s visit.
When Bullock chose May 25 to hold the special election — the earliest date possible — he likely had the college vote in mind, so early absentee voting would overlap with the final weeks of the school year. That gave his fellow Democrat a window, albeit a narrow one, to rally college students before they dispersed into Montana’s hinterlands for the summer.
“Democrats know they have to swing a lot of those middle or independent voters, so young voters are incredibly important. It should be a pretty coveted group of people because they aren’t always decided,” said Rachel Huff-Doria, executive director of Forward Montana, which helps get out the vote on college campuses across the state.
As he did in his bid for governor, Gianforte has largely ignored college campuses. His campaign has focused on rallying older, established voters to cast ballots.
Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. have visited Montana on behalf of the Republican candidate, who has campaigned to help the president drain the Washington swamp. Gianforte has embraced the Trump administration, even amid the seemingly unending turmoil that has roiled Washington in recent weeks over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the president’s alleged ties to Russia.
Libertarian Mark Wicks also is in the race.
Kurt Secrest, who graduated Saturday from the University of Montana in Missoula, cast an absentee ballot for Quist three weeks ago, ahead of hitting the road for a job out of state. He said his decision was influenced by how the country’s direction portends for his future.
“At the moment, my hope has been a little diminished,” said Secrest, who hails from a tiny town 200 miles east of campus that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. He wants a representative in Congress who shares his world view. He doesn’t want a military buildup. He wants wider access to affordable health care and stronger safeguards for the environment, which he believes won’t happen under Republican rule.
While liberals dominate some college campuses, there are pockets of conservative resistance. Mariah Schell, a Carroll College student, described herself as a social conservative who would be voting for Gianforte.
“Gianforte has more of the kind of experience I’m looking for, as opposed to Rob Quist, who’s just a musician,” she said.
Philosophy major Branan Mull, another Carroll College student, considered his options while waiting for the cafeteria to open. He saw the special election as an opportunity for disruptive politics and plans to vote for Quist to restore the political equilibrium that he said is missing now that Republicans control the national agenda.
“The more political power Trump has — senators and congressmen — the more dangerous he becomes,” Mull said. “But again, maybe it’s nothing more than the neo-liberal propaganda I’ve bought into.”