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Erin McPike

GREAT FALLS, Montana — If Democrats have any hope of picking up this state’s lone House seat in the May 25 special election to replace newly installed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, they’ll need swing voters like Tara Beam to punch a ballot for their party’s nominee, Rob Quist.

Beam and her husband, Jason, own a burger joint called Roadhouse Diner in a converted log cabin in this northern Montana town. They both voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic presidential primary and later were a house divided in the general election. Tara picked Donald Trump because she didn’t like Hillary Clinton; Jason settled on Clinton due to her experience.

Tara, a former military officer and emergency room nurse, describes herself as a centrist Republican. She supports federal funding for Planned Parenthood and opposes “wasting money” on a border wall.

But she was initially unfamiliar with the upcoming House race between Republican Greg Gianforte and Quist, which hasn’t garnered anywhere near the kind of national media attention showered on Tuesday’s suburban Atlanta congressional election. That is soon to change: National reporters are swooping into the state this week in such a frenzy that Quist’s campaign team seems overwhelmed in sorting through a backlog of interview requests from outlets ranging from The New York Times to Rolling Stone.

While the Georgia congressional district has been in Republican hands since 1979, the GOP has held the Montana seat since 1997. Democrats currently control the governor’s mansion and one of the state’s Senate seats, and they say privately it’s much harder to win the House seat because congressional races don’t attract nearly as much money. They still have to blanket all of the same media markets, or at least the biggest five of the state’s nine.

And for that reason, following the anecdotal energy shift to Democrats in the wake of strong showings in Georgia and in Kansas last week, a local reporter started to interrogate Quist after an event focused on Social Security and Medicare with 14 area seniors. She asked why his race hasn’t attracted the same kind of national treatment and money as the others. (Quist rejected the premise.)

The Republican in the race has something of a different challenge — which national attention could also remedy.

At a luncheon at the Meadowlark Country Club with eight men from the Montana Defense Alliance just a few minutes down the road from Quist’s event, Gianforte cautioned, “The left is very organized. Our polling shows that most people on the left know when the election is, but most on the right don’t.”

He said his biggest challenge will be getting out the vote, because “most people don’t really know who Rob Quist is.”

That’s not quite right. Quist is a local musician with a hearty following throughout the state, and when his name came up, the Roadhouse Diner's Beams sang a different tune.

“Most people know of Rob Quist because of his famous background in Montana music,” Tara said, with Jason adding, “He’s got that Montana pedigree that everybody likes.”

He went on that Quist’s persona makes him “dangerous” in a race here, and voters might overlook his more liberal leanings in favor of his Montana spirit.

“I can’t imagine not voting for Rob Quist,” Jason said after he recalled seeing some signs for the candidate. He had voted for Gianforte in last year’s governor’s race, because, he said, Gianforte backed a state sales tax. (That’s not quite accurate; Gianforte was on tape backing a sales tax in 2002 but didn’t support it during his race years later.)

His vote isn't a sure thing, though. Jason said after voting absentee for Clinton last year, he wished he could have changed his vote after seeing his Obamacare premium doubling just days later.

“It bothered me that Trump and the Republicans didn’t have a plan ready to go” last month he said, calling it bad business. He and his wife favor fixing Obamacare incrementally rather than dismantling the system entirely after how much went into building it. He’s willing to give Trump a chance, and he likes how decisive he’s been so far. They hope his business background translates into good government, and they’ve been hoping to attract local politicians of either party to visit the Roadhouse Diner because they’re so proud of achieving a business American dream of their own.

Tara, decked out in cheeseburger earrings and excited for an upcoming Food Network appearance on May 28, might not have known about the special election, but she volunteered that Bernie Sanders is coming to Montana next month and can’t wait to go see him.

“My man!” she said.

Sanders, of course, is coming to campaign for Quist.

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