Before Rob Quist became a politician, or toured the country in a bluegrass band, he lived in Cut Bank, a rural Hi-line town near where the Rocky Mountains meet the eastern plains.
The young Quist lived on a ranch just north of the town with his family. Back then, Cut Bank was one of Montana’s big-time oil producers, Quist was his high school’s student body president, and he helped the Cut Bank Wolves win a state basketball championship, leading the team in scoring in the title game.
Quist is now running for Congress as a Democrat in Montana’s special election, on May 25. He spoke about his hometown during a recent campaign event.
"We had so many great things,"Quist says. "Of course, growing up in the north country, as a farmer rancher's son, where you learn the essence of hard work, and the joy of hard work as well. And community and family.”
Quist is claiming his Cut Bank roots as authority to give voice to the state’s rural voters, and to brand himself as an authentic Montanan.
Quist and his opponent, Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman software entrepreneur, have traded political salvos in this quick election race by attacking each other’s self proclaimed Montana authenticity, arguing over who is a better voice for the people.
Pete Wetzel still lives in Cut Bank. He knew Rob Quist and his family back when they were all growing up here.
As Wetzel starts driving out of town, toward the old Quist house, he says he was happy when he heard the news that Democrats had picked Quist to run in the special election.
“He’s just down to earth, honest, honest guy. Come from a good family,” Wetzel says.
As Wetzel drives, he keeps calling Quist a ‘down to earth guy’, saying he likes him because he’s not a career politician, he’s a local guy that knows Montana, and because of that, he trusts him to represent this town and Montana’s interests in Congress.
Wetzel points to an old white House, with a red tractor and a couple of cars in the driveway, although he doesn't think the Quist family lives there anymore.
“I’m almost positive that’s his place. The old place," says Wetzel.
Cut Bank is located on the eastern border Glacier County, which went big for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It also picked Democrat Steve Bullock for governor over Greg Gianforte in November, 73 to 25 percent. Glacier County is home to the Blackfeet Reservation, which has long voted Democratic.
But Wetzel says Cut Bank itself tends to vote more like its adjacent neighbor, Toole County, where Donald Trump won more than 73 percent of the vote, and Gianforte beat Bullock with 59 percent.
Leif Torgerson has lived in Cut Bank for almost 40 years, but graduated from high school in Toole County.
“I’m not as interested in who is a Montanan, as I am in the candidate that I feel would be the best representative,” says Torgerson.
Torgerson also says he knew the Quist family, but knew Rob Quist mostly through his music career in the Mission Mountain Wood Band.
“He’s been well respected as a musician for many years, I’ve listened to his music and enjoyed it. But as a politician, I think to sum it up for me personally, I can be real good friends with somebody that I don’t think would be a good politician."
Torgerson says he’ll vote for Greg Gianforte. He’s concerned about comments Quist has made about registering guns. But the most important differences to him between Gianforte and Quist is their business experience.
Cut Bank is no longer the oil boom town it once was. Closed storefonts are scattered through downtown’s main street.
Torgerson says Cut Bank doesn’t need a Montanan, it needs someone who can help rural communities get back to work.
"Small towns in Montana are dying. And I think that it’s something that we can maybe slow down," Torgerson says. "But I think it’s maybe inevitable. Our towns, the schools, everything, are shrinking. So, what we need is people who recognize the changing populations but also business climate.”
Torgerson says whichever political party can not just understand rural Montana, but come up with a plan to help save it, is going to win the support of communities like Cut Bank.
About 20 minutes down the road, in the town of Shelby, where Trump won big, Alex Rickman was working on an old Ford Bronco on the side of the road outside a pawn shop, where he just picked up some spare parts.
He’s in his early 20s, says he’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and generally frustrated with national and state politics.
And when it comes to the important issues for him in elections:
“Obviously stable work and being able to pay your bills is probably the most important thing for a lot of people in this area," Rickman says. "Not having to worry about it, just being able to go about your day not have to worry all the time”
Rickman says he doesn’t think Republicans or Democrats are helping ease that worry right now.
And when it comes to Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist, he doesn’t know how, or if, he’ll vote. He says he doesn’t know much about them.
“I have no idea where either one of them stand, because all the commercials I’ve ever heard was one talking shit about the other.”
You can drive through Rob Quist’s home town in just over 3 minutes if you don’t hit the red light on main street.
There’s a gas station convenience store on west side, and another on the east side, and a fading boom town in the middle. The values that drive many of the people here to vote aren’t loyal to the home-grown man, but to whoever can give the town a future.