A special election in Big Sky Country has fired up the liberal base enough to scare Trump and the GOP

Campaigning in a white cowboy hat and working 15-hour days, Rob Quist, a folk-singer-turned-populist House candidate, has caught fire with the grassroots of the Democratic Party, whose donations are transforming a shoestring campaign into a small-dollar juggernaut. You might assume the national Democratic Party would also be zeroed in: Montana presents a critical test of the party’s renewed “50-state strategy” and a crucible for reconnecting with rural voters in advance of the 2018 elections. But you’d be mistaken.

It’s the third week of
 April, days before early
 voting begins, but party 
leaders haven’t even picked 
up the phone to call Quist. 
From across the dinette of a
 Winnebago that doubles as the campaign’s mobile headquarters,
 now careening toward Bozeman, I ask Quist to describe his relationship to the national party. “I really don’t have one,” he says with a shrug. “We’ve been running our own thing here.”

Montana may seem an unlikely battleground for Democrats: Hillary Clinton lost by 20 points here; Ryan Zinke – Trump’s new Interior secretary whose statewide seat is up for grabs – trounced his House opponent by nearly 80,000 votes. But Montana voters are fiercely independent. On the same ballot, they gave the state’s Democratic governor a second term, sending a charisma-challenged tech titan named Greg Gianforte to defeat. The same Gianforte is now the GOP’s troubled nominee for the House. Montana is very much in play.

Responding to the threat, the GOP has launched a multimillion-dollar attack-ad blitz, and Donald Trump Jr. is en route to Montana to campaign against Quist. “They’re worried,” says Nancy Keenan, head of the state Democratic Party. “They know they have a race on their hands.”

The Quist campaign is an epic roadshow. Its 24-foot Winnebago begins the day parked outside a lentil-sorting factory in the farm town of Ulm, where Quist makes a populist pitch to workers in hard hats and dusty jumpsuits. “This isn’t a millionaires’ club,” Quist, 69, says. “This is the U.S. House of Representatives.” The Winnebago then zags northeast to Great Falls, the state’s third-largest city, where Quist seeks the endorsement of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance. At a table strewn with packets of jerky, Quist pledges to defend gun rights and brings tears to the eyes of a hunter by reciting couplets of a cowboy poem he wrote about defending Montana from newcomers with schemes “to cheapen and abuse her.”

The campaign then hauls south at 80 mph – a legal speed in this vast state – covering 180 miles to arrive for a 20-minute pit-stop rally at a main-street cafe in tiny Manhattan, population 1,600. “I’m buoyed by the support we’ve received from people just like you,” Quist says. “I’m riding the blue wave!” With a bundle of small-dollar checks under his arm, it’s out the door and rolling on toward a windswept rally with students at Montana State University, who chant for him, “Rob Quist! Rob Quist!”

Quist is no stranger to cheering crowds or life on the road. A professional musician who has played for audiences as diverse as Hee Haw and CBGB, Quist is most famous for picking guitar and banjo in the Mission Mountain Wood Band, Montana’s iconic “electric bluegrass” act that shared 1970s stages with the likes of Merle Haggard, Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley. Quist continues a solo career in a folksier vein – recent songs include “A Lady Called Montana” and “.45 Caliber Man” – and he tends to a small ranch in the Flathead Valley, south of Glacier National Park. The campaign’s endless five-event days, crisscrossing a state the size of Japan, seem to energize rather than exhaust Quist. “This is not work for me,” he says with a wry smile. “This is the best.”

Square-shouldered, with a trim black mustache, Quist cuts an imposing figure: He stands six feet five in cowboy boots. And that’s not counting the loft of the trademark cowboy hat he wears even to political debates. But Quist’s tenor voice and still-waters charisma draw in an audience on issues like expanding Medicare, protecting public lands from developers and fighting predatory lenders. “These are the type of loans you pay on ’em and you pay on ’em and they don’t go down. They just go up,” he tells students. “This is just not right.”

In a simpler world, Quist would be playing shows with his trusty Takamine guitar – years of his pick work have dug a hole through the soundboard. “I call that my Willie Nelson badge,” he says with a laugh. A reluctant politician, he got a push into politics from friend and former governor Brian Schweitzer, another Big Sky populist. “He told me, ‘Rob, you can do this. Who better than you to represent the state of Montana? You’ve been doing this all your life.’ ”