As liberal (?) #mtpol commentator Greg Strandberg noted recently, the Quist campaign was doomed the moment that Democratic consulting firm Hilltop Public Solutions took over. We’d like to take a moment to analyze why that may be the case, and what Hilltop’s failure could mean for future Montana Democrat campaigns.
To start, it’s important to note that our site has already received several different comments from our followers asking us to check into Hilltop Public Solutions and the “corporate/establishment Democrats who control the party”. For background, read a quick overview of who Hilltop is here.
There certainly appears to be large animosity from the liberal grassroots towards this group of political operatives. To understand why, we must first understand the Hilltop candidate model.
Take Rob Quist. Quist was already popular among the liberal grassroots because of his Bernie Sanders – style sensibilities. On the second amendment for example, Quist took the extreme far-left stance in favor of radical gun control measures.
But after being nominated, Quist was quickly re-packaged by Hilltop to be sold as the quintessential Montana candidate: a cowboy-hat wearing, gun toting outdoorsman.
Identifying his public views on the 2nd amendment as Quist’s major weakness in this persona, Hilltop had to compensate, even going so far as to make a campaign ad with Quist shooting a TV with his opponent’s ad on the screen.
But this overcompensation led to big problems. The wide disconnect between Quist’s express support for gun control alongside his “strong support for the second amendment” made easy opposition fodder for the rival campaign. Quist’s own record as an outdoorsman was even called out after it was discovered he hasn’t had a hunting license in over a decade. Needless-to-say, this along with other factors led to his defeat.
Hilltop’s model is to cloak their candidates in enough Montana identity to disguise often times extreme leftwing views on issues that aren’t acceptable to a majority of voters. However, this tight-rope walking of the issues serves to alienate the progressive base they rely on the most and open candidates up to right wing calls of hypocrisy.
For a progressive Hilltop candidate, there won’t be any “progress” once in office. Their term will be filled with charting moderate stances, avoiding substance and placating their base just enough while still attempting to keep up the charade of Montana values.
The bottom line is that a candidacy staked on identity can only go so far. And, like Quist’s doomed campaign, it will collapse if other developments call that identity into question.
But Hilltop remains the preeminent strategists for the Montana Democratic Party, and their next big test will be re-electing Jon Tester in 2018.
Tester has all of the same trappings of a classic Hilltop politician: he oozes “Montananess” and plays up an image of generally left-of-center stances on issues. But that’s where the real trouble comes in for Democrats in 2018.
Tester’s play to Montana identity won’t be nearly as effective after spending so long in D.C. And it will be incredibly hard for Tester to hide his extreme liberal views after a decade of votes on the record to defend. This will especially take a toll on important issues like the second amendment, where Tester is on the record supporting universal background checks and other gun control measures.
Make no mistake, Tester will be in a vulnerable position. And if the GOP is smart, they will nominate a candidate who will stake their race on these issues and press Tester to reconcile his extreme leftwing votes with his “Montana values”.
As long as Montana Democratic candidates are forced to follow the Hilltop model, walking the tight-rope on issues and chasing a long lost image of Brian Schweitzer, they will continue to campaign at a disadvantage in the age of Trump.
End note: This post focused on the flaws with the main candidate model of the Montana Democrats. We are saving our analysis of the flawed Trump “model” for GOP candidates until a later date.