Mon­tana elec­tion proves lib­eral out­rage isn’t enough

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

Democrats re­ceived a strong re­minder from Mon­tana vot­ers that it takes more than just lib­eral out­rage against Pres­i­dent Trump and the GOP agenda to win seats that lean to­ward Re­pub­li­cans.

It takes se­ri­ous can­di­dates and a pol­icy agenda of their own.

Their nom­i­nee, Rob Quist, hailed by lib­eral ac­tivists as a cow­boy poet, de­liv­ered what most ob­servers in Wash­ing­ton felt was an av­er­age per­for­mance in a race that was closely watched even be­fore the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee was charged with as­sault­ing a re­porter on the eve of Thurs­day’s special elec­tion.

Some Democrats have re­sponded to Trump’s vic­tory, which they be­lieve re­sulted at least partly from fame de­rived from his re­al­ity-tele­vi­sion ca­reer, by search­ing for their own unique can­di­dates. But af­ter re­ceiv­ing just 44 per­cent of the vote, Quist may demon­strate the lim­i­ta­tions of quirky, first-time can­di­dates.

The show­ing also raises the stakes for Democrats in the June 20 runoff elec­tion for the race to re­place Tom Price, the health sec­re­tary whose for­mer House dis­trict north of At­lanta is seen as po­lit­i­cal ground zero this sea­son be­cause of its more com­pet­i­tive na­ture than other special elec­tions held so far.

There, Jon Os­soff, a 30-yearold neo­phyte and for­mer con­gres­sional staffer, is locked in a dead heat. Now more than ever, some party strate­gists fear that if he can­not put the race away ahead of June 20, late-break­ing vot­ers will not view him as a se­ri­ous enough al­ter­na­tive in these po­lit­i­cally tur­bu­lent times.

What Mon­tana showed was the need to field can­di­dates with back­grounds that ap­peal to vot­ers who have tended to back Re­pub­li­cans in con­gres­sional races. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily an ide­o­log­i­cal re­quire­ment to be a cen­trist — se­ri­ous can­di­dates, such as Sens. Bernie San­ders (IVt.) and El­iz­a­beth War­ren (DMass.), can re­side at the edge of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum. But they nearly al­ways need more grav­i­tas than Quist brought from a decades-long ca­reer as a gui­tar player in a pop­u­lar blue­grass band in the Moun­tain West.

There are ex­cep­tions, of course. Sen. Al Franken (DMinn.) is one — although it’s worth not­ing that Franken spent his first eight years in of­fice avoid­ing the com­edy shtick he was known for on “Satur­day Night Live” be­cause he rec­og­nized the need to get se­ri­ous fast.

Of the three special elec­tions, Quist clearly de­liv­ered the worst per­for­mance, based on a mea­sure crafted by the smart an­a­lysts at the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port. Democrats re­ceived 49 per­cent in the ini­tial bal­lot­ing in Price’s old dis­trict and al­most 47 per­cent in the race in south­ern Kansas, bet­ter than Quist’s 44 per­cent.

More­over, based on re­cent pres­i­den­tial races, the Kansas nom­i­nee per­formed 12 per­cent­age points bet­ter than an av­er­age Demo­crat would have been ex­pected to show, ac­cord­ing to Cook. In Ge­or­gia, Democrats per­formed seven per­cent­age points bet­ter than an av­er­age nom­i­nee.

Quist out­per­formed an av­er­age Demo­crat by just 5 per­cent. And he lagged woe­fully when com­pared with Mon­tana’s Demo­cratic gov­er­nor, Steve Bul­lock, who won by four per­cent­age points in Novem­ber against Repub­li­can Greg Gian­forte — the busi­ness­man who de­feated Quist on Thurs­day de­spite be­ing charged with as­sault­ing a re­porter the night be­fore.

Democrats in Wash­ing­ton saw that as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for their de­ci­sion to in­vest only $500,000 in the race, dis­miss­ing Quist as a can­di­date who had a hard ceil­ing of about 43 to 45 per­cent among vot­ers in their in­ter­nal polling.

“DCCC took a smart chance with its in­vest­ments, re­fused to waste money on hype,” Mered­ith Kelly, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, wrote in a Fri­day memo.

Be­cause it was a special elec­tion, Quist won the nom­i­na­tion at a party con­ven­tion where the most lib­eral ac­tivists held sway, rather than a broad statewide pri­mary.

The com­plaints about money are mis­guided when com­par­ing this race to the Kansas special elec­tion. There, Democrats nom­i­nated an­other San­ders acolyte, James Thomp­son, who ran in a more con­ser­va­tive dis­trict than Quist, on a shoe­string bud­get of $1.4 mil­lion. He re­ceived noth­ing close to the $500,000 Quist got from the DCCC.

Yet Thomp­son took a larger share of the vote than Quist, who raised and spent more than $6 mil­lion.

Per­haps if Mon­tana Democrats had found a nom­i­nee with Thomp­son’s pro­file, they would have been bet­ter served.

Home­less as a teenager, Thomp­son en­listed in the Army and used the GI Bill to fi­nance his ed­u­ca­tion, serv­ing as a civil rights lawyer for 13 years be­fore launch­ing his long-shot bid for Congress.

In their early re­cruit­ing for the midterms now 17 months away, Democrats have tried to thread this nee­dle. They are tap­ping into the anti-Trump en­ergy with first-time can­di­dates who can ap­peal to anti-es­tab­lish­ment pro­gres­sives — but also with per­sonal back­grounds that will demon­strate a se­ri­ous de­vo­tion to gov­er­nance in­tended to ap­peal across party lines.

This has pro­duced an early fo­cus on mil­i­tary vet­er­ans more aligned with Thomp­son’s back­ground.

In the sub­urbs east of Den­ver, Ja­son Crow is a for­mer Army Ranger and lo­cal lawyer run­ning in a dis­trict where Democrats have un­der­per­formed year af­ter year. In a sim­i­lar dis­trict out­side Philadel­phia where Democrats have failed to put to­gether strong chal­lengers, Chrissy Houla­han is an Air Force vet­eran who helped run a bas­ket­ball ap­parel com­pany and worked in the non­profit sec­tor.

Be­yond can­di­date re­cruit­ment lies a deeper ques­tion about the party’s agenda and whether Democrats need an up­date on their pol­icy pro­pos­als.

Quist ag­gres­sively painted Gian­forte as some­one who would sup­port Repub­li­can ef­forts to dis­man­tle the Af­ford­able Care Act with­out en­sur­ing pro­tec­tions for those with pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions.

Os­soff has been hit­ting his op­po­nent, Repub­li­can Karen Han­del, for her ef­forts to deny fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood, while promis­ing to be a prob­lem solver who will work across the aisle to de­liver re­sults.

But there has been very lit­tle in terms of a spe­cific Demo­cratic agenda should they win the 24 seats needed to take back the House ma­jor­ity next year.

On Thurs­day, House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) joined San­ders at an event to en­dorse his pro­posal to cre­ate a $15 min­i­mum wage, some­thing San­ders touted in his 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

It showed party lead­ers were drift­ing to­ward the Ver­mont so­cial­ist’s eco­nomic views, but it is likely to do lit­tle to gen­er­ate votes come Novem­ber 2018.

Rais­ing the min­i­mum wage is an is­sue that al­ways polls off the charts. But Democrats have pushed this is­sue in three straight elec­tions, and it has done next to noth­ing for their can­di­dates, be­cause most vot­ers want a lot more than a min­i­mum-wage job.

Democrats might pull off the win in Price’s seat, but if they are go­ing to ride a wave all the way to the ma­jor­ity, they prob­a­bly need more ex­pe­ri­enced can­di­dates than Os­soff and Quist — and with a sharper mes­sage than Os­soff’s in­tro­duc­tory ad a few months ago.

“I’ ll work with any­one to do what’s right for our coun­try,” he said.

JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN/GETTY IM­AGES

Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date Rob Quist con­cedes.

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