Montana voted Thursday to fill the U.S. House seat vacated in March by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Democrat Rob Quist, a populist progressive cowboy poet known for his career as a bluegrass singer, supports single-payer health care, legalizing marijuana and funding more arts programs in schools. Republican Greg Gianforte, a tech entrepreneur who moved to the state in 1995, is a hard-line social conservative who backs the deeply unpopular GOP bill to replace Obamacare and wants to turn over control of public lands to the state. Late Thursday, early poll results indicated a close contest.
Gianforte, who narrowly lost a bid for governor last year, is favored to win the seat that Zinke handily won re-election to in November. But Gianforte’s own strategists describe him as “basically an unpopular incumbent trying to get re-elected.”
Gianforte had a 6-point lead over Quist in a poll released this month by a Democratic political action committee. But internal GOP polling has shifted against Gianforte amid proliferating scandals coming from the White House, conservative blogger and radio host Erick Erickson reported this month.
The election took an unexpected turn Wednesday evening, when Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs accused Gianforte of “body-slamming” him. In audio that Jacobs recorded, the reporter asked Gianforte how he felt about the Republican health care bill in light of the analysis of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that came out earlier in the day. (Gianforte had previously claimed he would have voted against it, because without an updated CBO report, he lacked the “data” to assess its merits.)
The audio then cuts to the sound of a scuffle.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte says. “The last time you came here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here!”
“Jesus Christ,” Jacobs said. “You just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says again.
”If you’d like me to get the hell out of here, I’d also like to call the police,” Jacobs says.
Gianforte’s campaign blamed Jacobs for the altercation, saying the reporter had pushed a phone into his face. “Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground,” campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.”
Gianforte was reportedly set to be interviewed by Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna when Jacobs interrupted. In a written account of what she witnessed, Acuna said Gianforte manhandled Jacobs, even though Jacobs did not “show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”
“At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Acuna wrote. She said the TV crew “watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”
It’s unclear how the election-eve violence may influence Thursday’s vote. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wasted no time trying to capitalize on it, demanding that Gianforte “immediately withdraw” from the race.
The National Republican Campaign Committee did not respond independently, referring reporters to the Gianforte campaign’s statement.
Regardless of the factors that determine the final outcome, a close tally would send a clear warning to both parties that even deploying political star power couldn’t propel a mandate-sized victory. But a surprise win for Quist would signal not only a rejection of President Donald Trump’s policies but also of the long-held Democratic playbook for winning ― or, more often of late, losing ― much-needed seats in Congress.
In many ways, the Montana election plays out an alternative narrative of the 2016 presidential race. Trump carried the state by more than 20 points on Election Day and picked up nearly 74 percent of votes in the Republican primary last June. Gianforte is banking on the president’s popularity. Over the past month, he campaigned alongside Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won the state’s Democratic primary with 51.1 percent of votes to Hillary Clinton’s 44.6 percent. Quist backed Sanders at the time, and the Vermont senator has since returned the favor. Sanders endorsed Quist in April and appeared at packed campaign events with him last week.
Despite Clinton’s loss and the failure to recapture the Senate, Democratic Party stalwarts have spurned the progressive wing of the party. Party leaders picked Tom Perez, President Barack Obama’s labor secretary, to lead the Democratic National Committee, even after progressive Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) secured endorsements from establishment torchbearers like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). That Perez’s backers touted his progressive bona fides as being on par with Ellison’s raised even more questions about why he should run at all, if not to prevent the so-called Berniecrat wing of the party from gaining power.
The Democrats virtually ignored Quist until late April. Asked about the Montana special election, Rep Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the DCCC’s 2016 national mobilization chair, told HuffPost last month he “didn’t know about that.” But as the race heated up, the party began spending more money, tripling its initial investment to $600,000 earlier this month.
“It seems clear that Gianforte’s massive edge in early funding allowed him to attack Quist’s character viciously before there were sufficient funds for Quist to respond to the vitriol,” Jeff Hauser, a longtime Democratic operative and director of the Revolving Door Project, told HuffPost. “If Quist should lose, the national Democrats who provided financial assistance after mail-in voting had already begun will have to question anew their initial reluctance to engage in the race in March and early April.”
Quist attracted the enthusiastic backing of progressive activists because of his unabashed liberal stances.
Winnie Wong, co-founder of the People for Bernie, an online group, credited Sanders followers for getting involved in Quist’s campaign early and “corner[ing]” the Democratic Party into following suit.
If Quist wins, Wong argued, “the overwhelming message that will resonate across the country is that Berniecrats can win in red states. That will send a message to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party to move left.”
Democrats have notched a few small victories. On Tuesday night, Democrats flipped two state legislature seats ― one in Long Island, New York, the other in New Hampshire ― in districts that voted for Trump. But the party’s losing streak on the national level has yet to break.
Two weeks ago, Democrat Heath Mello failed to unseat Republican Mayor Jean Stothert in Omaha, Nebraska. In April, left-leaning progressive James Thompson lost his bid for Kansas’s open House seat, despite coming unexpectedly close in a deep-red state.
The fight for Georgia’s 6th District, vacated this year by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, has become the highest profile race yet, in part due to the symbolic value of flipping a seat long held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Democrat Jon Ossoff fell less than 2 points short of defeating Republican Karen Handel last month, and a runoff vote is scheduled for June 20. Democrats, to their credit, have poured millions into the race. And it may be paying off. Ossoff has taken a 7-point lead over Handel in a new poll commissioned by Georgia’s WXIA, a local NBC affiliate.
Still, while Democratic super PACs have lavished Ossoff with money and ads featuring celebrities, Quist has plugged along, raising more than $5 million in donations that average $25. That’s $2 lower than Sanders’ average. Quist’s fundraising skyrocketed this month, after Gianforte waffled on his support for the American Health Care Act, which could imperil more than 70,000 Montanans’ health insurance.
“A Quist win is a wake-up call for Democrats to reconsider an approach to candidate recruitment based on maximizing the number of rich people a potential candidates knows well,” Hauser said. “Our populist moment is best suited to candidates who, like Quist, have personal stories that resonate with the party’s increasingly populist platform.”
Sprawling Montana, with a statewide population less than one-eighth of New York City, is far from a perfect microcosm of the country writ large. But it’s not the blanketly red state the 2016 election results would suggest. Montana voters elected Sen. Jon Tester (D) in 2006, unseating an incumbent Republican. Tester won re-election in 2012. Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who won re-election despite a well-funded and aggressive campaign by Gianforte, criticized Democrats for ignoring Western states like his, opting to remain in coastal liberal strongholds while right-wing donors flooded races in places dismissed as “flyover states” with money.
“I remember a humorous episode from Bill Clinton’s presidency in which his advisers prevailed upon him, one summer before his re-election campaign, to spend his vacation in Montana and Wyoming instead of the usual Martha’s Vineyard,” Bullock wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. “The theory was that he’d benefit from hanging out someplace a little more down to earth. He took the advice, and won re-election. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart.”