HELENA, Mont. (CN) – Few of those attending Thursday morning’s rally for U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte paid much attention initially to Marlene Simms, the sole protester standing outside the venue.
“You can’t buy my vote. So go home, rich boys,” her sign read.
But like those mingling around Simms on Thursday, the rest of the nation is starting to take note of the tight race between Republican Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist for Montana’s sole seat in the House of Representatives. It’s one of five House races up for grabs in special elections in 2017.
Both Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence are making appearances in the Treasure State this week – the second visit by Trump Jr. – to stump for Gianforte. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he’ll visit Montana to barnstorm with Quist, although no date has been set.
Quist, a musician, and Gianforte, a software millionaire, are vying for the seat formerly held by Ryan Zinke, who was tapped to head the Interior Department earlier this year by President Donald Trump. Montana’s May 25 special election also includes Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks.
Republicans have held Montana’s At-Large District seat since 1997, and Trump won Montana by a 20-percent margin in the 2016 presidential election.
On Thursday, people clad in baseball caps and blue jeans mingled with others in suits and high heels, as a Hank Williams song played over the loudspeakers in the historic Kleffner Ranch’s barn. The rally began with Chris Cox, the National Rifle Association’s chief political strategist, urging those in the half-filled barn to get out the vote and tell their friends to reject “all the money coming in from California and other places where they’re desperate to undermine this president and the freedom in this country.”
He added, “We have our work cut out for us.”
Moments later, after a quick stump speech by Gianforte, Trump Jr. took to the stage for one of his four planned events in Montana on Thursday.
“We need more people in D.C. to help my father,” Trump Jr. said to a round of applause.
Quist doesn’t have quite the same out-of-state star power, but is holding scores of rallies in small venues across the state. He’s slightly behind Gianforte in the polls, as well as in fundraising, with Quist reporting about $900,000 in March alone, compared with more than $1.6 million for Gianforte.
National Republican groups are expected to spend up to $2.5 million in the race; national Democrats were a little slower to enter the fray, but expect to spend about $600,000 to support Quist with advertising and voter turnout. The Democratic National Committee has also sent staffers to the state to help fundraise and recruit volunteers.
Gianforte lost by a slim margin in the 2016 gubernatorial race to incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte aligns himself closely with President Trump, pledging to “Drain the Swamp” in Washington, stand up to special interests and create jobs.
Despite living in Montana for 24 years and raising four children here, Gianforte is portrayed by Democrats as a rich, out-of-state businessman who donates heavily to far-right conservative causes and tried to prohibit access to a stream near his Bozeman mansion.
He’s also drawn heat for his 2015 comments that retirement isn’t consistent with biblical teachings, noting that when Noah built the ark, he was 600 years old and “he wasn’t, like, cashing Social Security checks, he wasn’t hanging out. He was working. So I think we have an obligation to work.”
Quist is a popular native Montanan and political neophyte who is well-known for playing in the legendary country bluegrass group Mission Mountain Wood Band. He’s campaigning as a hard-working family man who will defend public lands and stream access rights, and help reform the nation’s tax code.
But Quist has made a series of stumbles since he was chosen by Montana Democrats to run against Gianforte. His financial troubles date back 16 years and involve $15,000 in unpaid property taxes which have since been paid, a lawsuit over a bank loan, and a former member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band accusing him of fraud and deceit.
Quist said a botched surgery and subsequent poor health led to his financial troubles. But just this week, the Billings Gazette reported more problems for Quist, including a barn he remodeled into apartments and rented out. State property tax records don’t list the apartment units, which typically are taxed at a higher rate than a barn.
Simms, who quietly held her bright pink anti-Gianforte placard at his rally, was eventually asked to step away from the main entrance and she complied. But she smiled as she stepped back, noting that she checked in with the venue’s owners earlier and they told her she was welcome as long as she didn’t create a scene.
“So I’m just going to stay here and hope my voice is heard,” she said.