With just one day until the election, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte appears to have assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after being asked a question about Republicans’ health care bill. On Wednesday night, Jacobs alleged that Gianforte smashed his glasses and “body slammed” him to the ground. Jacobs quickly posted audio that appeared back up his version of the story.
Local authorities have charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.
The bizarre and frightening turn came at the conclusion of a race that has been far more closely contested than almost anyone expected. Gianforte is running against Democrat Rob Quist for Montana’s only House seat — one that opened up after former Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) was appointed Trump’s interior secretary.
It’s not a seat Democrats typically contest. Hillary Clinton lost Montana by 20 points. The state is full of white working-class voters who flocked to Donald Trump in droves. Montana is on nobody’s list of 2020 swing-states.
But Quist, a Bernie Sanders-loving banjo player who attacks financial elites, is hoping to turn the state blue. The special election may turn on a host of local and candidate-specific factors — from Gianforte’s career as a tech billionaire and assault of a reporter, to Quist’s checkered financial history and messy lawsuits against former bandmates.
But the race will also have clearly national repercussions. A weak Republican showing might make the GOP less likely to jam their wildly unpopular health care bill through Congress and could bolster Democratic recruiting efforts ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, according to Dave Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist.
Perhaps most importantly, a close race or outright victory for Quist could upend national Democrats’ conceptions of where their party’s candidates can prove competitive. One idea, articulated by some former Clinton surrogates after the election, is that Democrats’ path to reclaiming Congress lies primarily through the wealthy, affluent, suburban districts where Trump underperformed.
A win from Quist could give progressives a roadmap for also vying in much more Trump-friendly territory. And the latest polls suggest Quist is down by about 2 points with only a few days left in the campaign — a far closer number than most observers expected.
Who are the candidates in Montana’s special election?
Even though the Montana race may have consequences for evaluating the national political landscape, the outcome may be just as shaped by the personalities and personal eccentricities of the candidates themselves.
Quist, 69, 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 Bernie Sanders and made affordable health care and defending public lands the centerpieces of his campaign. He’s well-known in the state for his music, which leads to headlines about “the poet” running for Congress and allows Quist to get away with campaign lines like, “I’ve really been representing Montana through my music and poetry all my life.”
But more recently, Quist has come under a barrage of criticism for his personal financial history. In 2013, Quist was sued by Mission Mountain Wood Band bassist Steve Riddle for breach of contract. In May, the Associated Press revealed that Montana filed three tax liens to collect about $15,000 in back taxes from Quist. A subsequent AP report showed that he underreported his income by $57,000 — an embarrassment Republicans seized on immediately.
Still, it’s not as if Quist’s opponent comes through as a squeaky-clean candidate, either.
Gianforte, 56, was born in California, educated in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and only came to Montana in 1995. After moving to Montana, Gianforte sued to try to keep people from being able to fish in a stream that ran by his property.
As The Huffington Post notes, Gianforte ran for governor and lost to Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) in 2016. In the process, he spent more than $5 million of his own money in a failed gubernatorial bid. That was good for airing 30,661 television ads — more than that of any other state candidate in history, a staggering figure in such a small state.
Gianforte’s career has led Quist to seek inroads with voters by portraying his opponent as a corporate stooge.
“The other choices we’re offered are really connected to corporate America, which in a lot of ways has undue influence on the politics of our country,” Quist told the Guardian. “My goal is to be a strong, independent voice for the people of Montana.”
And then there was the late-breaking news Wednesday that Gianforte had apparently attacked a reporter at a barbecue over a question about the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the impact of House Republicans’ health care bill.
Gianforte’s campaign issued a statement alleging that Jacobs asked “badgering questions” and bemoaned that “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created a scene.”
A close Montana race could bolster Democratic recruiting efforts
In 2016, House Democrats didn’t just face the obstacle of gerrymandering when going up against the GOP. They also ran a slew of extraordinarily weak candidates in red but achievable districts, including someone who had been unemployed for the last six years and a beekeeper with no elected experience.
The special elections held so far — including Democrats’ surprisingly strong showings in Georgia and Kansas — have helped encourage better Democratic candidates to throw their hats into the ring. Another surprisingly close race could indicate that Republicans face a rough map in 2018, which may encourage more qualified Democratic candidates to enter local races.
“If the general feeling is that it represents a warning sign for Republicans, that has strong implications for whether Democratic candidates jump in for 2018,” said Hopkins, the political scientist.
And the reverse effect also holds: If Republicans sense they’re in for a rough reelection bid, then vulnerable Republican incumbents will race toward the exits — creating more opportunities for House Democrats.
“There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy here, as incumbents consider retirement thinking they’ll face a tough race, which in turn makes the field tougher for Republicans,” Hopkins said.
We’re already getting signs that this trend is underway, with the unexpected retirement of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in a competitive Florida House seat. A scare for the GOP in Montana would accelerate it.
Implications for health care on Capitol Hill
Similarly, on Capitol Hill, the Montana race put Republicans’ legislative agenda on ice. In particular, the Montana race may reveal the extent to which Republicans embrace Speaker Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act at their own political peril.
On the campaign trail, Quist has responded to his personal travails by emphasizing the horror of the Republican health care bill. Last week, he hosted a series of “Hands Off Our Health Care” events around the state. His rallies around the state with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) were billed as attempts to rail against the “un-American health care plan.” His last ad buy, “Preexisting,” goes after Republicans for ending the Affordable Care Act’s protections for patients with preexisting conditions:
There’s a good reason for Quist’s team to go after the AHCA rather than Trump: The president remains popular in Montana. Meanwhile, the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare covered 70,000 Montanans, the AHCA is polling in the mid-20s nationally, and the approval rating of Obamacare is skyrocketing.
Gianforte, meanwhile, has mostly ducked questions about his support for Ryan’s health care bill. A tape obtained by the New York Times revealed that Gianforte had praised the bill behind closed doors, but has said he wouldn’t have voted it because of a lack of “data.”
The “data” that came out from the Congressional Budget Office, which conducts official analysis of bills, on Wednesday night looked bad — an estimated 23 million more Americans would be uninsured in 10 years than under current law, as well grim outcomes for patients with preexisting conditions.
Gianforte’s reaction to questions about the health care bill already suggests that he’s touchy about the subject. If Quist wins in a statewide race viewed as a referendum on the bill, Senate Republicans may be less willing to pass it.
The promise and perils of Sandersism in Trump country
In the home stretch of the election, Quist has turned to one politician above all others to sell his message to Montana voters: Bernie Sanders.
As the Washington Post’s Kathleen McLaughlin and David Weigel noted from the campaign trail of Sanders’s “four-city barnstorming” through the state with Quist:
On Saturday, in front of 3,000 cheering voters at this Democratic city’s Civic Center, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) raised the stakes.
“The eyes of the country, actually eyes all over the world, are on the great state of Montana,” said Sanders. “People are asking: Is it possible for working people, for seniors, for ordinary people, to come together and successfully defeat a candidate of the millionaires? They’ll know it if you do it in Montana.”
On the one hand, Quist’s embrace of Sanders appears to be a clear affirmation of what the Vermont senator’s fans have been saying since last year’s primary — that his vision for the party must be embraced to eat away at Trump’s popularity with white working-class voters. Quist has signaled his support for single-payer, come out against tax cuts for the 1 percent, and generally attacked corporate greed — all of which come out of the Sanders playbook, rather than seeing the party’s best pick-up opportunities in the wealthy “Panera” suburbs where Clinton made inroads and where Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff hopes to win.
But Quist's platform doesn't exactly amount to full democratic socialism, either. His website is full of generic praise for small businesses and "the entrepreneurial spirit," calling for the end of "unnecessary red tape" to "build up Montana's high tech energy." His energy policy, in a state where fracking is big, is far to the right of Sanders's — he's called on the use of Montana's natural resources, including coal.
A Quist win may give some support to the idea that Sanders-style populism can help reinvigorate Democrats among the white working class. The make-up of that economic populism, however, may wind up looking different in states like Montana than it does in Vermont.