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What the astonishingly close race in Kansas is — and isn’t — teaching Democrats in Washington

Rob Quist, 69, is vying for a special election in Montana in May. Will national Democrats send help after watching a special election in Kansas slip through their fingers? (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

A little-known Democrat with virtually no support from the national party came shockingly close to pulling off an upset in a deeply conservative House district in Kansas this week.

The party has instead thrown its financial heft behind 30-year-old former Democratic Hill aide Jon Ossoff for a special election in Georgia’s Sixth District on Tuesday — a district that Donald Trump only won by one point and that national Democrats have made their key election target of the early Trump administration. A crowded field of Republican candidates in the race also bolsters Ossoff’s chances in the wealthy Atlanta suburbs.

But Jim Thompson’s strong showing in Kansas is starting to make progressives push Democrats to rethink races they once felt out of reach. (Vox’s Matt Yglesias makes a similar case here.) In particular, they’re calling on the party’s fundraising arm to do more to help Montana banjo player Rob Quist, a Bernie Sanders–inspired Democrat whom polling has put in the lead for a special election on May 25.

“I don’t think Democrats in DC believe that they can win in Tennessee or Oklahoma or Kansas,” said Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for the progressive advocacy group Justice Democrats. “Thompson’s race shows that they could if they’d just make the investment.”

Democrats in Congress also said the Kansas race revealed the need for national Dems to do more in districts once considered unreachable. “The one thing last night tells me is that we need to put a lot more races in play,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) said in an interview the day after the Kansas election. “And we need to get involved early.”

Who is Rob Quist, and why does he look like he has a shot in this election?

Quist, 69, is offering Democrats their next rare opportunity to expand the electoral map.

The Montanan, running for the state’s only House seat, is renowned at home as a founding member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band (M2WB). Attacked by his opponents as a “cowboy hat wearing hippie,” Quist has praised Sanders and made affordable health care and defending public lands the centerpieces of his campaign, according to the Guardian.

“I think the thing I liked about Bernie is he was a man of the people and really connected to grassroots. That’s what I’m all about,” Quist told the Guardian.

Quist is running against Greg Gianforte, a millionaire tech entrepreneur from New Jersey who spent $5 million of his own money on a failed gubernatorial bid, the Huffington Post reported. The seat hasn’t been held by a Democrat for 21 years — it opened up after former Rep. Ryan Zinke was chosen as interior secretary — and Trump won it by 20 points. A Republican Super PAC has begun running $700,000 in ads deriding Quist.

Washington Democrats have resisted getting into the race. When asked by the Huffington Post, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 2016 national mobilization chair, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), said he “didn’t know” there was a special election in Montana.

But since then, Quist’s star has only risen, and his local fundraising haul has exploded. On Thursday, he announced he had raised $1.3 million through crowdfunding.

“[Trump] creates an environment where conventional wisdom has to be discarded. Conventional wisdom said he couldn’t get elected, but I don’t think that the wisdom all falls in the same direction. The conventional wisdom is that in Montana, or Georgia, those seats are out of reach for us. I wouldn’t bet on it,” Rep. Dan Kildee told HuffPo.

Georgia is on the DCCC’s mind. Montana, for now, is not.

The Democratic National Committee has long talked about the need to start competing early in every district, but those who control the purse strings are deploying a much more targeted approach. A DCCC spokesperson said the Kansas race showed “the great energy” animating the anti-Trump left, but wouldn’t detail exactly how it had changed the committee’s thinking for other races.

"We've long been in touch with the [Quist] campaign and have already invested some money in the race,” said Tyler Law, a DCCC spokesperson. “We are definitely considering investing more. The DCCC has been monitoring these races really closely.”

But the numbers reveal what’s been on the DCCC’s mind. On Monday, the committee announced that the party was spending an additional $250,000 on TV ads in the Georgia race for Ossoff.

That came on top of heavy investment at the beginning of March to send six full-time staffers, paid for by the DCCC, to help build up Ossoff’s campaign in the affluent Georgia suburb. It also has made a five-figure investment in get-out-the-vote ads on the Pandora music streaming site, and a six-figure investment in radio stations targeting African Americans in the district.

By contrast, the DCCC has sent virtually no money or staffers to Montana. It spent no money in the Kansas election and sent no prominent surrogates, while Republican Ron Estes received more than $130,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee and received direct help from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

That’s left some progressive activists fuming. “It was a razor-thin loss, and we were totally abandoned by the national Democratic Party,” said Joan Gedraitis, 46, a volunteer for Thompson’s campaign in Kansas. “A little help is all it would have taken.”

What should the party use as its blueprint?

But the idea that the DCCC erred in largely skipping the Kansas race is still a controversial one among Democrats. In a widely circulated op-ed endorsed by the current communications director of the DCCC, former Hillary Clinton aide Christina Reynolds defended the committee’s decision not to invest in Kansas’s special election.

She made two key points: 1) that national Democrats had to pick their battles, and given how much Trump won the district by — 27 points — it made more sense to concentrate their limited resources elsewhere; and 2) that Democrats in right-leaning districts often don’t want the DCCC’s help, since it can be used to tie them to widely unpopular House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Sometimes the best thing for a candidate is to allow them to get press and support in their own district,” Reynolds writes.

Left-wing critics have argued that this defense appears to undercut the purpose of giving to the DCCC. If Democrats in Washington can’t spend money on critical races in competitive seats because it will make their candidates politically toxic, then why does it take donors’ money in the first place?

They also say there’s a danger in assuming that Democrats should primarily focus on where Clinton did well.

The median income in Georgia’s Sixth District, where Ossoff is competing, is $83,000 — more than twice the national average. In the Kansas Fourth, it’s $48,100. In Montana, it’s $33,024.

Throwing much of the party’s money at these wealthier districts where Clinton did well makes some sense, given that they appear more winnable. But doing so may also starve Democrats trying to make inroads with the downscale white voters who heavily supported Donald Trump — districts that progressives believe they can win with help from the national party.

“Democrats want to fight in these wealthy, highly educated districts where Trump did not do that well in,” said Trent, of the Justice Democrats. “That's why they're going all out for Ossoff and not willing to go get the Democrats who are living in poverty, and so desperate they turned to Trump.”

Ben Wikler, Washington director of the progressive group MoveOn.org, said the party should realize the Trump resistance is strong enough to fight on multiple fronts — that it doesn’t have to choose as narrowly in picking its battles as it might have during the Obama years, when the liberal base was less fired up.

“Democrats have to realize we’re not in a fixed-pie world anymore. Where there’s leverage to fight Trump, there will be energy and money,” he said.

In Kansas, for instance, Thompson raised $148,000 from small-dollar donors with essentially no help from his state or national party. (He only raised $38,000 from donors who gave over $200.)

“People are waking up and looking for how to help — the resources will be there,” Wikler said. “Progressives are constrained by avenues for fighting now, as opposed to resources for the fight.”