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.