What Greg “Body Slammer” Gianforte’s GOP victory means and doesn’t mean
Some thoughts on the Montana Congressional election where Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist by 6 points:
1) Most reports show that about 2/3 of all votes were cast before the body slam incident. A GOP pollster (Remington) surveyed the state and found that 93% had heard about it on Election Day, and 9% net shifted their vote to Quist. But with only 1/3 of votes outstanding – and many voters already committed to Quist on Election Day – the amount shifting to Quist as a result of the body slam was never likely to be very consequential. There may have been a turnout shift as a result of the incident, but we have no data on that yet.
2) Quist was a unique candidate, in both good and bad ways. Good in that he personalized the health care debate, was a folksy non-politician, and drew heavily from Bernie Sanders rather than DNC for support. The bad was that he had serious financial issues of his own and made some gaffes (on a gun registry, e.g.) that more seasoned pols wouldn’t likely make. A lot of voters stayed home because of doubts about Quist.
3) November 2016 had two obvious benchmarks to look at: the Presidential race (Trump won by 20 points) and the Governor race (Democrat Steve Bullock won by 4 points). The GOP candidate who lost in the Governor race was Greg Gianforte, the same guy who won the Congressional race last night. So we can compare GG’s result vis-a-vis both the Trump number and the Special Election number.
4) But we need to be careful comparing the three races though: a Governor has a different function than a Congressman. Federal issues are different than state issues. Montana has had Democratic Governors and Democratic Senators, but has not had a Democratic Rep since 1993 and has only voted Dem for President once since 1964. Even in the big Dem wave elections of 2006 and 2008, the Republican Congressman was elected by over 30 points. Also, Bullock was the incumbent Governor. So we should expect Bullock to do much better than Hillary Clinton in 2016. We should also expect Bullock to do better than Rob Quist, given the two offices under consideration.
5) However, there is a fourth race to consider too: the 2016 Congressional race between Ryan Zinke (now Sec of Interior) and Denise Juneau, which Zinke won by 16 points. That relatively close margin suggests that Juneau was a very strong candidate (outperformed Clinton) and could have been stronger against Gianforte had she decided to run. My guess is that she would have won – and will have a very good shot at winning if she goes up against Gianforte in 2018.
6) We also have to consider Gianforte as a candidate. He is also a non-politician. But he is extremely religiously ideological, which is not typical for Montana Republicans. Even before the body slam, Gianforte was not a beloved Montanan with deep roots there. That said, his campaigning in 2016 probably helped prepare for 2017, however. And he was probably helped by oil and gas interests from Billings to the east.
7) Big money certainly helped Gianforte (especially outside PAC money against Quist) but I suspect Quist’s unique campaign approach (and outside support of his own) probably diminished the effect of Gianforte’s money advantage a bit.
8) The takeaway from the race alone shows Quist did remarkably well – extremely well, historically – for a Congressional race in Montana. He likely lost in the end because of the historic pattern of voting GOP for Congress and because of Quist’s personal issues, which seem to have hurt him in more populous Yellowstone (Billings) and Cascade (Great Falls) Counties. (He held his own in his native GOP-leaning Flathead County and did well in Dem strongholds in Missoula, Butte, Helena and Bozeman). The rural counties went the way they normally do – heavily Republican but with few voters. He needed to run up the score more in Missoula, apparently. I suspect a lot of 2016 Bullock-Juneau voters in Missoula, Great Falls and Billings simply stayed home in 2017 because of doubts about Quist.
9) What does this mean for 2018? That’s the big question. Nate Silver and Nate Cohn have both remarked that the overall shift to the Dem is in line with other shifts in Special Elections this year, all of which lead to a likely Democratic pick-up of about 30-40 seats and thus re-taking the House. This Montana election simply confirms the pattern found in Kansas and in various state elections. Remember that Montana’s Congressional rep is not a swing district. Not even close. There are 120 Republican-held districts more Democratic than Montana’s at-large seat. So a Quist victory would have mean the political equivalent of the Yellowstone caldera erupting. At the same time, if Gianforte had won by the same margin as ZInke (16 points), it would have meant that all the talk of an anti-Trump wave was overblown. It’s not. It’s just not a Fukushima disaster-inducing tidal wave. At least not yet.
10) Which gets to the final point here: Democratic expectations. Be realistic but hopeful. The big prize coming is GA-6. Unlike the Kansas and Montana races, the GA-6 race is a very real pickup opportunity and doesn’t require some crazy outside event to make it happen. The latest SUSA poll shows Ossoff up 7 there, though I think that’s too high. That said, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the world changes because of a special election. To be sure, a special election could be a harbinger of something big. That’s why the pattern of special elections is important (a Daily Kos elections analysis shows an 11% shift to the Dems so far). At the same time, each individual special election must be viewed as, well, special.