AGAINST THE GRAIN

GOP Gets Jitters About Montana Race

Even though national Democrats have barely invested in next Thursday’s red-state House election, it’s a lot closer than anyone expected.

Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte (right) welcomes Donald Trump Jr. at a rally in East Helena, Mont., on May 11.
AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan
May 21, 2017, 6 a.m.

A whop­ping $30 mil­lion has already poured in­to next month’s spe­cial elec­tion in sub­urb­an At­lanta, which both parties view as a bell­weth­er to the 2018 midterms. But next Thursday’s quieter con­gres­sion­al con­test in Montana may provide a bet­ter in­sight in­to the coun­try’s polit­ic­al mood, and it’s shap­ing up to be more com­pet­it­ive than either party ex­pec­ted. Re­pub­lic­ans hold a nar­row ad­vant­age, but are con­cerned that this week’s worsen­ing Trump scan­dals—and the grow­ing un­pop­ular­ity of the GOP’s health care le­gis­la­tion—come at the worst pos­sible time.

The race pits two lackluster can­did­ates in a polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment tail­or-made for a Demo­crat­ic shock­er. Re­pub­lic­an busi­ness­man Greg Gi­an­forte, who lost the gov­ernor race last year, made his wealth in New Jer­sey and lacks deep roots in his ad­op­ted state. Demo­crat­ic mu­si­cian Rob Quist is a true-blue pro­gress­ive with loads of per­son­al bag­gage, and is be­ing slammed over tax and fin­an­cial prob­lems. Re­pub­lic­ans have held a sig­ni­fic­ant fin­an­cial ad­vant­age for the en­tire race, with 71 per­cent of the ad­vert­ising money in the race spent on Gi­an­forte’s be­half. But Quist re­ceived a late in­fu­sion of small dona­tions, swell­ing his war chest to $5 mil­lion.

The latest GOP polling shows Gi­an­forte with a nar­row lead. And for the first time, the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al num­bers have dropped un­der­wa­ter in this Trump-friendly state. A Re­pub­lic­an poll con­duc­ted May 14-16 found just 46 per­cent of Montana voters view­ing Pres­id­ent Trump fa­vor­ably, while 47 per­cent viewed him un­fa­vor­ably. This, in a state where Trump won 56 per­cent of the vote, one of his strongest per­form­ances in the coun­try.

Demo­crats have been wary about rais­ing ex­pect­a­tions too high, know­ing their nom­in­ee is ser­i­ously flawed and re­cog­niz­ing the dif­fi­cult demo­graph­ics in this solidly Re­pub­lic­an state. But un­like in the Geor­gia con­test, which is be­ing con­tested in a much more af­flu­ent dis­trict, Demo­crats have been ag­gress­ively tar­get­ing Gi­an­forte over health care. The latest ad from the Demo­crats’ top House su­per PAC por­trays Gi­an­forte as a wealthy, un­car­ing car­pet­bag­ger. “Greg Gi­an­forte: our pain is his gain,” the ad con­cludes. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that Gi­an­forte has hedged on wheth­er he would have voted for the un­pop­u­lar House health care le­gis­la­tion.

Quist is an even worse can­did­ate. His pop­u­list charm is an as­set in a state will­ing to elect work­ing-class Demo­crats, but that’s about all he has go­ing for him. He has a dec­ade-long re­cord of fin­an­cial troubles, with a his­tory of tax li­ens and stiff­ing con­tract­ors. He’s talked about his life-sav­ing gall­blad­der sur­gery as in­dic­at­ive of the im­port­ance of af­ford­able health care, but that opened up scan­dal­ous ques­tions about his health his­tory. (It’s nev­er good when “preex­ist­ing gen­it­al herpes” is brought up by polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion.) One of his former band mem­bers once sued him for fraud.

Make no mis­take: If Demo­crats win in Montana next Thursday, it would send shock­waves in­to an already-frazzled Re­pub­lic­an Party. Montana is ra­cially ho­mo­gen­ous, cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive, and filled with work­ing-class voters who drif­ted away from the party last year. Wash­ing­ton Demo­crats barely in­ves­ted in the race be­cause Montana isn’t the type of place to make a stand. There are 110 oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing dis­tricts less Re­pub­lic­an than this one, ac­cord­ing to the Cook Re­port Par­tis­an Vot­ing In­dex.

The Re­pub­lic­ans’ slim lead is mainly due to early, well-fun­ded ef­forts by the Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund su­per PAC and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. But if a not-ready-for-prime-time Demo­crat­ic play­er can pre­vail in Montana, it’s a glar­ing warn­ing that Trump’s prob­lems threaten to weigh Re­pub­lic­ans down al­most every­where in the coun­try.

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