Democratic duo: Quist and Sanders invigorate Missoula

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Montana congressional candidate Rob Quist (right) launched their four-city campaign tour in Missoula on Saturday, May 20, 2017. Health care, women’s rights, the environment, public lands and tax reform played among the central issues during the Missoula rally. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Rob Quist stepped before a full house at the University of Montana on Saturday where he wasted little time painting his Republican opponent as just another millionaire looking to buy a seat in Congress, and spelling out his pledge to work toward universal health care.

Quist entered the final stretch of his campaign for Montana’s at-large seat in Congress with a jolt of enthusiasm provided by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who invigorated the Missoula crowd with the same fiery political tones he delivered during his run for president last year.

Together, the two pledged to fight the growing gap between the rich and the working class, protect women’s and indigenous rights, work for universal health care, and bring transparency to Washington, D.C.

“I don’t want to get you all nervous, but the eyes of the country are on Montana next week,” Sanders said. “People are asking, can a rural state – a small population – can people come together to take on the big-money interests that divide this country? If you can do it, Montana, we can do it all across this entire country.”

Quist is looking to pull an upset over Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a business founder who made millions selling RightNow Technologies before launching a failed bid to serve as Montana’s governor last November.

Recent polls suggest that Quist has cut Gianforte’s lead to single digits, giving Montana Democrats hope of capturing a seat they haven’t held in decades.

“Nobody thought he had a chance to win,” Sanders said of Quist. “Now, a week before the election, our Republican friends are getting nervous, and they should be nervous. Not only must you get out to vote, bring your friends with you.”

Rob Quist, a folk musician turned political candidate, said health care has emerged as one of the top issues in his run for Congress. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Early in his campaign, Quist often targeted the issues that hurt Gianforte in his run for governor, including public access to public lands. While public lands and the environment remain a central issue in Quist’s campaign, undoing the new American Health Care Act has emerged as a priority.

As it stands, Quist said, the Republican-crafted legislation would raise premiums by over $300 per person and create an “age tax” for those between the ages of 50 and 64. It would also threaten rural health care and cost as many as 70,000 Montanans their insurance coverage.

“I’ve had health issues of my own,” Quist said, addressing recent ads launched by conservative PACs questioning his past. “We persevered, powered through them and we paid all our bills – every dime. In the greatest country on Earth, people should not have to go bankrupt because they have medical issues.”

While Gianforte has said he would not have supported the American Health Care Act – passed by House Republicans this month – he was caught on tape telling conservative lobbyists that he was “thankful” for the legislation.

Quist cited the New York Times article that broke the story, drawing jeers from Montanans who are upset with Gianforte’s perceived dishonesty on the issue.

“I think he was thankful because he would get an $800,000 tax break,” Quist said of his political opponent.

Tax breaks for the wealthy and the growing gap between the rich and the working class also emerged as a top theme during Saturday’s rally, driven in part by Sanders, who spoke for nearly 30 minutes.

Sanders said he and Quist both find it “ethically and morally unacceptable” that today, one-tenth of 1 percent own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And while people around the country work several jobs to make ends meet, Sanders added, 52 percent of all new income goes to the nation’s top earners, even as they skirt paying income taxes.

“(Quist) has this crazy idea that maybe, just maybe, we should have a government that represents all of us and not just the wealthy,” Sanders said. “He also understands that as a result of this disastrous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, that the very fabric of our American democracy is getting undermined.”

Taking aim at the American Health Care Act, Sanders called it one of “the ugliest, most dangerous and anti-American bills ever passed in Congress.”

A forecast by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that 24 million fewer people will have coverage a decade from now if the American Health Care Act remains intact, nearly doubling the number of Americans who are uninsured.

The Montana Budget and Policy Center says as many as 70,000 Montanans would lose coverage.

Around 4,000 supporters cheer on Rob Quist and Sen. Bernie Sanders during their campaign stop at the Adams Center at the University of Montana in Missoula on Saturday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Can you imagine anyone supporting a bill that throws 24 million Americans, including 70,000 people in this state, off the health care they currently have?” Sanders said. “What this bill is really about is a huge tax break for the wealthiest people in this country.”

According to Sanders, the Republican measure is less about providing coverage to working Americans and more about providing tax breaks to the rich.

“What kind of moral compass could someone possibly have to vote for a bill to give tax breaks to people who don’t need it and throws 24 million Americans off health insurance?” Sanders said. “Rob Quist is going to bring a different moral compass to Washington.”

During the rally, Quist – a popular folk musician and political outsider – played his campaign’s theme song. He then urged those in the crowd, estimated at around 4,000 people, to vote in Thursday’s special election.

“Special interests have had far too much influence in Washington, D.C., for far too long,” Quist said. “This should not be the millionaires club. This is the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com