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The Best Way to Keep Democrats From Blowing This Election

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© Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Representative Greg Gianforte, a Republican, and Kathleen Williams, a Democrat challenging him for his seat, both attended the Crow Fair in Montana in August.

By TIMOTHY EGAN, The New York Times

We know that outrage has a minimal shelf life in the Trump era. Our president can give despots a license to kill, claim that climate change is going to magically reverse itself, make up nonexistent riots — and it all passes in a blur.

So it was last week, when the Mendacity Machine rolled into Montana for a rally on behalf of two of the least likable politicians in the Rocky Mountains. Trump praised one of those pols, Representative Greg Gianforte, a man with nouveau Gilded Age wealth and attitude to go with it, for committing criminal assault.

“Any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my kinda guy,” said Trump. Gianforte, who stands to be the richest representative in the House with the retirement of Representative Darrell Issa, pleaded guilty last year to misdemeanor assault of a reporter who had asked him about health care. He threw the man to the ground and broke his glasses, then lied about it.

But while the presidential thug plug dominated the news, a quieter, more telling campaign has been unfolding under the Big Sky — one that returns Democrats to a role as defender of average working people. Kathleen Williams, who has been crisscrossing Montana in her camper with her dog, is poised to knock off Gianforte with an old-fashioned campaign that should be a model for Dems mired in media-driven sideshows.

Democrats used to be known for love of the Little Guy. Franklin Roosevelt won Texas, Oklahoma and Montana — for that matter, most of what is now Red State America — through four elections, while campaigning on behalf of “the forgotten man.” This dandy from a Hudson River Valley estate connected words to a political revolution that changed millions of lives for the better.

That message has been lost to history’s vapors. When 4,035 working-class voters in battleground states were recently asked to name an elected official who was fighting for them, the top answer was “no one.”

After attending the Democratic National Convention two years ago, Kellyanne Conway offered this summary of what she heard: “Their message is Donald Trump is bad, and we’re not Donald Trump. The rest of the message was race, gender, L.G.B.T.”

As this filters out to the heartland, it doesn’t help good people trying to put a check on Trump. “The national party hasn’t been engaged with a good message,” as Billie Sutton, a Democratic former rodeo rider running for governor in South Dakota, told my colleague Jack Healy. “It used to be fighting for the little guy.”

As Trump praises violence, insults women and stokes a mob chant of “Lock her up,” it does no good for Democrats to say “that’s not who we are.” In fact, that is who we are, or have become — perhaps 40 percent of the electorate willing to throw decency, respect for truth and the law into the gutter with this president. An appeal to our better angels is a nonstarter in 2018.

A winning strategy is to go directly to the self-interest of a majority that is being hurt by Republican policies. The two biggest political thrusts of the Party of Trump — a tax cut for the rich that opened a tsunami of debt, and trying to take away health care from millions — are widely unpopular. This election should be no more complicated than that.

That’s exactly what Williams, who says she will not support Nancy Pelosi as House party leader, has figured out. While still a teenager, she lost her mother. And she later lost her husband, a Vietnam veteran, to early death as well. That gave her a sense of how life can throw a random punch to the gut.

“The millionaires have lots of people helping them,” she says. “I’m running for Congress because we need someone who will fight for us.” In a state that Trump won by 20 points, she’s polling about even with Gianforte.

“Not to be too dramatic about it, but Kathleen Williams is the congressional candidate Montana has been waiting for,” wrote the Missoulian newspaper in a recent editorial endorsement.

Gianforte, a tech magnate said to be worth about $600 million, favors tax cuts for people like himself and is against expanding health care for those at the other end. A Montana ballot measure that would raise tobacco taxes to provide health care for the working poor is well ahead in the polls. The key here is independent voters — around 44 percent of the electorate — who are willing to cut through the daily cable news fat in search of the real meat of politics.

It’s frustrating, during a week in which Trump has probably set a record for most lies to come out of a White House in so short a time, to stay focused on boring policy. Trump is counting on people being stupid, and easily distracted. Montana, a state that in 1916 sent the first woman to Congress, can show him otherwise, with the election of another woman in 2018.

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