HELENA -- Montana Democrats brought in one of their national party's rising stars to headline their annual dinner, but the hundreds who gathered Saturday wanted to hear more from one of their own: musician Rob Quist, who must convince fellow Democrats that he can win back the state's only congressional seat and help national Democrats push back against the Republican tide.
He will have to prevail in the May 25 special election against Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman entrepreneur and former gubernatorial candidate with deep pockets and a determination to win public office.
Quist has been traveling the state as he did while on tour with his musical group to win support from voters. He will also have to convince donors to invest in his campaign.
"This House seat should not be his consolation prize," Quist said of his Republican opponent, in a speech meant to energize the 1,200 Democrats from across the expansive state meeting for the Mansfield Metcalf Celebration at the Lewis and Clark County fairgrounds.
"We know that Montanans talking to Montanans will win this election."
In his address, he railed against the Republican plan that would dismantle key elements of the Affordable Care Act.
Quist has been traveling the state as he did while on tour for his musical group. He will also have to convince donors to invest in his campaign.
Quist will need the party faithful to act as surrogates in the huge state, especially in rural enclaves that generally favor Republicans.
A Gianforte spokesman called Quist out of touch with the values of Montanans.
"Montanans want a strong voice in Congress who will stand up for the Second Amendment, enforce our immigration laws, and provide the military with the resources they need to defeat ISIS," said the spokesman, Shane Scanlon.
Quist came out of nowhere to capture his party's nomination, beating out two experienced legislators to represent his party in an election to fill the seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
While Quist is trying to energize his base, the night's keynote speaker, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, is helping the party capitalize on the growing distress among Democrats over Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Montana's May balloting and another special congressional election in Kansas next month are among the first tests for national Democrats. Outside campaign analysts consider the contests safely Republican, which means Quist has little time to dispel that thinking.
Sen. Jon Tester dismissed that the Montana race would be a referendum on national Democrats.
It remains to be seen how much national organizations, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will invest in the race.
"They're waiting to see how effective we can run a campaign," he said. "They're definitely watching this race."
Voters are, too. Indeed, some Democrats openly wonder if Quist can pull it off.
"There's only a small amount of time, and I don't know if he can do it and how much he has," said Macrae Peeples from Missoula.
Her parents, Ralph and Connie Sidebottom, drove more than three hours from Polson to be with fellow Democrats but also to hear from Quist.
"I don't know anything yet about Rob Quist, but I'm anxious to hear him speak more," said Ralph Sidebottom, 75.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, an outside group seeking to keep Republican control of the U.S. House, has already begun bombarding the television airwaves to help Gianforte tamp down Quist's chances of turning the race into a competitive one.
"I will meet him anytime and anyplace, and we'll see who's out of tune with Montana Politics," Quist said.
Quist said he's raised at least $350,000 and that contributions have continued to pour in.