Rob Quist is a country crooner from Cut Bank, Montana, whose fiddle-infused music includes songs like “Living Wild and Free” and “A Lady Called Montana.” “From the plains of the Powder River to the mountains of Columbia Falls,” as he sings in the latter title, “it would take you 15 lifetimes to ever see it all.” He’s been touring the West in unpretentious fashion for years, playing festivals and fairs and stadiums and schools.
Quist is also the Democratic candidate to be the Big Sky State’s next congressman. As he campaigns to fill the House seat left vacant by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s recent elevation, the 69-year-old political neophyte is performing a new sort of tune.
Last week, Quist crisscrossed his home state and hosted rallies in places like Polson, Great Falls, Missoula, and Kalispell. They were rallies with a simple theme that speaks straight to the heart of many Montanans: the importance of protecting federal public lands.
The GOP’s campaign against federal land ownership and conservation law has created an opening for Quist.
“When multi-millionaires look at mountains and streams, they probably think, ‘That would be good to own,’” Quist told a crowd of 150 gathered along the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. “But Montanans say this is our way of life.”
Quist took his public lands tour to Billings too, where he condemned the land-transfer movement, a Republican Party-backed effort to hand over control of federal lands to right-wing state and local governments.
“The transfer and eventual sale of our public lands is nothing more than a theft from our grandchildren, and I will oppose this,” Quist declared.
A Democrat hasn’t served Montana in the United States House of Representatives since 1997, when popular wilderness advocate Pat Williams retired from Congress. Since then, Republicans have dominated races for the People’s House, though Montana Democrats have proved competitive in other statewide elections.
This year’s campaign, though, is taking shape under special circumstances. The brewing grassroots backlash against Donald Trump’s presidency, which has suffered a number of high-profile defeats in recent months, may help boost a candidate like Quist. What really seems to be working in his favor, though, is the Republican Party’s self-inflicted and out-of-touch stance on public lands conservation.
In the last nine months alone, the GOP has done all it can to provoke lovers of public lands across the country. In July, for instance, the party adopted into its national platform an endorsement of the land-transfer movement, which is a political poison pill for countless outdoor recreationists, hunters, anglers, and more. Meanwhile, Montana Republicans have quietly incorporated numerous pro-land-transfer provisions into their state-level policy platform.
As if support for land seizure weren’t alienating enough, the GOP has also been waging a vitriolic little crusade against the Antiquities Act, with party leaders openly advocating the nullification of the recently minted Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
In perhaps the most unfortunate anti-public-lands embarrassment this year Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill in Congress in January that sought to dispose of more than three million acres of federal land across the West. The proposal triggered impassioned protests in multiple states, including Montana, and Chaffetz was forced to withdraw it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bill disappear so quickly from Congress,” says Quist, who attended a 1,000-person bipartisan rally against the proposed legislation in Helena in early February. He says the voters he encounters are “fired up” about public lands.
The GOP’s campaign against federal land ownership and conservation law has created an opening for Quist, whose devotion to national forests and parks feels as unforced and authentic as the 10-gallon hat he’s always wearing.
“The happiest people I know are the people who spend the most time with mother nature,” he says during a phone call between campaign stops. “When I see people who are feeling down or depressed, I think, you know, you need to go for a walk in the mountains.” Most of the mountains in Montana are federally owned, and Quist, who grew up east of Glacier National Park, aims to keep them that way.
The Congressional hopeful believes public lands are Montana’s “single greatest asset.” On top of his opposition to land transfer, he advocates reauthorizing and fully financing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that supports land acquisition and conservation projects across the country. His campaign has also floated the idea of harvesting beetle-killed forest parcels to help preserve Montana’s timber industry.
In a state where voters overwhelmingly identify as conservationists, the Quist campaign’s focus on federal land ownership and access is a smart move, says Gabriel Furshong, deputy executive director at the non-partisan Montana Wilderness Association.
“Public lands are now a top-three issue in Montana politics,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of voters on this particular issue.”
Land Tawney, president and CEO of the non-partisan Missoula-based sporting group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, echoes this sentiment. He says that public lands are becoming more potent as a campaign issue.
“In Montana and across the country public lands have gained a ton of traction over the last two or three years,” Tawney says. “There is a hyper-awareness around what public lands are, what they provide, and what they mean to all of us as Americans.”
Quist’s conservation-centric approach is likely his best strategy for beating his well-funded opponent, a wealthy technology entrepreneur and conservative Christian named Greg Gianforte who recently lost to Democrat Steve Bullock in the state’s 2016 gubernatorial race.
And if the boot-clad songwriter from Cut Bank goes on to win Montana’s May 25th special election, it ought to induce political anxiety among Republican public land enemies across the West. The GOP’s anti-conservation agenda could very well cost it a seat in Congress.