Yesterday, Greg “Bodyslam” Gianforte beat Democratic Rob “Folksinging” Quinn by six points for the open seat contest to replace Congressman Zinke. Quist, a cowboy hat wearing Sanderista raised over $6 million dollars with Gianforte was a carpetbagger from New Jersey who lost a race for Governor last year.
The race was always an uphill climb for Democrats. But, a late breaking alleged assault a day before the election, Wednesday night, breathed new life into Quist’s campaign. Polling pegged the race in the low single digits. Turned out they were off by a few points.
So what are we to make of the results? Democrats will argue they were competitive in a state Trump won by 20 points. Combined with other contests the party is ripe for a great cycle next year. On the other hand, Republicans held a seat with a weak nominee.
There are a couple clear takeaways. First, Gianforte’s winning margin was unimpressive but it was hardly a narrow in. Again, polls had pegged he race a dead heat. In the end Gianforte apparently tied the Election Day Vote and easily won the Mail In Vote.
Secondly, voters distaste for both candidates showed through in the margin of support for Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks. He garnered almost six percent while Gianforte barely edged above 50 percent. Quist did not eclipse 45 percent.
Third, the idea that economic progressives can run in down-scale, white and largely rural areas and win is now 0-2. Sure, they do better, but they still don’t win. Let’s also keep in mind this race occurred under the shadow of the GOP passing the ACHA in the House, Trump leaking non-confidential secrets to Russia, leaks about the Manchester bombing coming to the press and the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the ruckus that followed. It would be hard to find a better short-term environment for a Democrat to run in and Quist still lost.
Now, Montana is a decidedly red state. But this ignores the fact the state has a purple hue in contests below the Presidential level. For several decades the state has had two Democratic US Senators. After a period of GOP dominance at the gubernatorial level Democrats have won four consecutive elections. Only recently, in 2014, did the GOP win a Senate seat.
Further adding to the quirkiness of Montana is the fact it’s House district is an at-large district making every Congressional race statewide. Republicans and Democrats at all levels are winning different kinds of voters to gain or hold office. Put simply, the voters a Senator needs to win are the same a Congressional candidate needs. Until as recently as 2014, Democrats were winning the same voters for Senate the GOP was to hold the at-large Congressional seat.
This seat should have been ripe to flip. But, it is also true Democrats that win in these contests do well to distance themselves from the national party. Quist didn’t. Indeed, he cozied up to the progressive base while throwing cultural platitudes to Montana voters in his bid. Didn’t work.
Ultimately, the special election map resembled 2016’s maps with a few twists. Gianforte ran behind Trump statewide but short of light blue Lewis and Clark County and swing Gallatine County the vote preference was the same (minus the margins). Ryan Zinke won reelection to Congress by 16 percent and his victories largely resembled Gianforte’s. In his gubernatorial bid last year, Gianforte ran ahead in almost every county (even Missoula).
The result should prove a cautionary tale for both parties. Democrats and Republicans need to both understand candidate quality still matters. Secondly, the progressive grassroots needs to understand running died in the wool Sanders fan in blue-collar, fiscally liberal but socially conservative areas does not guarantee victory.
Lastly, the results in Kansas, Georgia and Montana should not be over-analyzed. Right now Trump’s approval numbers say Democrats should do well next year. But the Senate map is stacked against them (for that matter so is the House map) and voters tend to base their votes for Governor on things other than the national mood (see Montana last year). So next year could resemble 1986 when Democrats did well in Congressional and Senate contests but struggled in state and local races. We’ll see.