Not even “body slamming” a reporter – and getting charged with misdemeanor assault on the eve of the election – could keep Greg Gianforte from victory in Montana. On Thursday, the Republican with rap sheet defeated the populist in a white cowboy hat, Rob Quist, whose longshot campaign had captivated the grassroots base of the Democratic Party.
The assault charge came after most of the election was already over. Some two-thirds of Montanans vote absentee, by mail, blunting the electoral impact of the GOP candidate having come unhinged, and three of the state’s leading newspapers rescinding their endorsements. As captured on audio and observed by eyewitnesses from Fox News, Gianforte threw a reporter to the ground for asking a question about the GOP’s Trumpcare bill – which would deprive 23 million of insurance. Contradicting a campaign statement that blamed his victim for the incident, Gianforte apologized to the Guardian reporter in his victory speech. “I should not have treated that reporter that way. And for that I’m sorry Mr. Ben Jacobs.” Gianforte is due in court June 7th.
While Gianforte’s legal future is cloudy, the meaning of the Montana election is clear:
The margin matters.
Trump won Montana by 20 points. Gianforte eked out a victory of roughly six points – despite hugging Trump as if he were a member of his extended family and receiving the full backing of Donald Trump Jr., who stumped all over the state for Gianforte, and of Vice President Mike Pence.
The 14-point shift – along with the surprise special-election squeaker in Wichita, Kansas – suggest that an anti-Trump wave is setting up for 2018. As the Cook Political Report puts it, “the margins in specials can tell us a good deal about the political environment – and so far, it’s looking really bad for Republicans.”
One interesting data point: Gianforte hit 50 percent, which is right at Trump’s favorable rating in the state, according to polling by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. If House races moving forward remain a referendum on Trump popularity, the GOP could be in for a washout. “We’re particularly excited to have made such strong gains in deep-red territory,” says DCCC chair Ben Ray Luján, “and what that means for the 2018 midterms.”
Mind the outside money gap.
All in, more than $17 million was spent on the Montana special election – about $17 for every man, woman and child in the state. Despite limited support from the national party – some $600,000 – Quist was not cash-poor. The party’s grassroots kept Montana in play by raising an eye-popping $6 million in small-dollar donations. Quist outraised Gianforte, who had to lend his own campaign $1.5 million. The math of campaign funds + party spending was more or less equal on both sides. But billionaire-backed GOP outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund ran wild in this race, outspending Democratic-aligned groups by roughly $4 million.
The early money matters.
Those outside groups spent big on early attack ads to define Quist, during a vulnerable period in mid-April when the Democrat was not able to defend himself; Quist was still catching on with Democratic grassroots donors, and the DCCC was silent on the sidelines. A GOP operative bragged to the Washington Post, “We knew that because Rob Quist was an unknown quantity with voters, we had the ability to define him negatively out of the gates.” Those early attacks – some of them substantive, targeting Quist’s past tax and debt troubles and highlighting a rare gaffe in which Quist seemed to back a gun registry – put Quist at an early disadvantage that he never fully recovered from.
Fighting is building.
The Quist campaign may not have won, but by crisscrossing the state in a Winnebago, engaging rural voters who haven’t been attended to by Democrats in years, Quist breathed new life into the state Democratic Party, reviving a half-dozen county committees where the party had literally closed up shop.
Quist proved that when Democrats show up in rural America – and listen to the concerns of voters – they can vastly outperform Hillary Clinton’s dismal showing. Quist bested Clinton’s numbers in Montana by nearly 8 points.
In short, through its backing of a tireless populist longshot candidate, the Democratic grassroots took the party’s “50-state strategy” into its own hands. The party’s base has left the fourth largest state in the nation far more competitive for its $6 million investment.
On this party-building front, however, the disconnect between Democratic grassroots and the DCCC remains sharp. In a post-mortem memo on the race, the DCCC patted itself on the back for its spending restraint, writing that it had “Refused to Waste Money on Hype.”
A rural ambassador was born.
The grassroots investment in Quist has also elevated the national profile of a man who could serve as a party ambassador to rural America. The Democratic brand is so toxic in much of red America that the party has been reticent to “nationalize” races in Trump country, for fear open affiliation with the national party could do the candidate more harm than good. In Quist, the Democrats now have a campaign surrogate they could plausibly deploy to help candidates in districts from Alaska to Alabama – if the party has the sense to make use of him.
Montana is still in play.
Misdemeanor assault charges still hang over Gianforte’s head. If the body slam heard round America wasn’t enough to derail him in May 2017, a criminal conviction might trip him up in November 2018, when Gianforte will have to defend the seat. He remains, by his own party’s estimation, a “C-minus candidate” – vulnerable to a national mood that continues to sour on the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump. The DCCC is already indicating it wants to stay on offense in Big Sky country. Says Chairman Luján, “We will be competing hard for this seat in 2018.”