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Lessons for both sides in Montana special election outcome

Greg Gianforte, right, and wife Susan, center, celebrate his win over Rob Quist for the open congressional seat at the Hilton Garden Inn Thursday night, May 25, 2017, in Bozeman, Mont. (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)

A Montana Republican is heading to Washington to represent the state in Congress despite an alleged act of violence against a journalist on the eve of the election, an outcome that some say is a consequence of the Democratic governor’s support for early mail-in voting.

However, experts are unconvinced that different voting rules would have given Democrat Rob Quist the edge he needed to break the GOP’s grip on the state’s only House seat, which the party has held for two decades. Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Quist by about 23,000 votes Thursday.

The congressman-elect faces a misdemeanor assault charge after allegedly body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs because Jacobs was questioning him about the Republican health care bill, the American Health Care Act. In his victory speech, Gianforte acknowledged his mistake and apologized.

Although Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized Gianforte over the alleged assault as voting was getting underway Thursday, conservative media outlets and some rank-and-file congressmen defended him.

Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence congratulated Gianforte Friday and indicated his apology, delivered after votes were counted and after previously blaming the incident on Jacobs, was sufficient.

Democrats were far less forgiving of Gianforte as they sought a silver lining in their loss.

“Embarrassingly for the Republicans, they squandered more than $6 million in order to protect what has long been considered a safe red seat – for a likely criminal no less,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Meredith Kelly wrote in a memo Friday.

Democracy for America, a progressive group that made calls and raised funds for Quist, maintained that his performance proved the effectiveness of a populist message.

“That’s the lesson the Democratic party needs to take to heart - that in the current political environment, with more people energized to kick Republicans out of office than ever before, seats like this are winnable -- but only if we get in early, organize and fight to win,” Executive Director Charles Chamberlain said in a statement.

Some conservatives have interpreted the outcome as evidence of the dangers of the early voting rules Democrats have championed. By the time news of the body-slam broke on Wednesday night, more than two-thirds of the Montanans expected to vote had already cast their ballots.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock had declared earlier this year that the special election would be held by absentee ballot. Voters were mailed ballots, but they also had the option of voting in person on election day or the 29 days before it.

“The right to vote, indeed the obligation as a citizen to vote, has no basis in partisan politics,” Bullock said at a press conference in February.

While some presume early voting helps Democrats, Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, said data does not consistently show either party benefiting more from the practice.

“It depends not just on the race and the candidates, but also the demographics of a state as well as on how early voting is implemented,” he said.

According to Franke Wilmer, a former Democratic state legislator who ran in the primary for the congressional seat in 2012, early voting in Montana often attracts both conservative rural voters and low income urban voters.

Prior to the body slam controversy, Gianforte had been expected to do better on election day than in the early voting, but initial data suggested the margins were about the same.

It is impossible to know whether Gianforte’s assault charge would have made a difference if fewer people cast their votes early. He may have underperformed on election day, but not by nearly a wide enough margin to swing the outcome.

Economist David Rothschild posted data from a PredictWise poll conducted on the day of the election, and Gianforte’s lead had dropped from 12 points to 5 in a week. However, only 44 percent of respondents said assaulting the reporter was unjustified.

“It’s very rare for a major issue to blow up the night before an election… If the election was hypothetically scheduled one week earlier, this might never have happened,” said Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena.

Gronke also emphasized that this race is not emblematic of a typical early voting experience.

“This is a very unusual case, and I’d be reluctant to conclude too much from it,” he said.

There is always the possibility of such a last-minute development, but the opportunity to vote early or by mail enables officials to manage election resources better and gives voters a chance to cast their ballot when they want to. In addition, Gronke observed that early voters are often the least persuadable.

“Early voters, in general, trend more partisan and more ideological and are the least likely set of voters to have changed their votes in response to a final piece of information,” he said.

Similar questions arose in the week before the general election when new details emerged about the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. As there were Thursday, there were scattered reports of voters inquiring about changing their votes because of the new information, but it was not a widespread phenomenon.

Clinton and others believe that last-minute revelation did upend the race, but unlike in Montana, that election was ultimately decided by a razor-thin margin in a few states.

Experts caution against drawing sweeping lessons about the state of politics and civility in America today based on the results of the Montana special election. The dynamics of the race were unique, and the alleged assault came too late to easily measure its impact.

For Democrats, this is the third special election of the post-Trump era where they have seen glimmers of hope and then fallen short of victory, but those failures are not necessarily a sign of the weakness of the resistance movement.

To win a Montana House race, Democrats need a strong candidate who appeals to moderates, liberals, and rural voters, according to Johnson. In Thursday’s election, neither candidate was particularly inspiring, as the 6 percent of votes that went to libertarian Mark Wicks suggests.

“If you’re the underdog, you need to generate enthusiasm,” said Wilmer, now a professor at Montana State University.

She said Democrats start out with a base about 5 points smaller than Republicans in Montana, and swing voters there usually break right. She estimated a Democrat would need to match President Obama’s best numbers and earn about 200,000 votes to win there. Quist drew less than 167,000 against Gianforte’s 190,000.

“It was always going to be about turnout.”

Wilmer had hoped Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement would give Quist the boost he needed with working class voters. Sanders, who won the state’s Democratic primary last year, campaigned with Quist near the end of the race.

Though Quist’s own fundraising efforts were impressive, outside Republican groups outspent outside Democratic groups by nearly ten to one.

“The problem for Democrats is they didn’t put the money in early enough,” Johnson said.

Democrats’ early passivity toward the Montana race underscores one significant reason why Quist’s loss should not be seen as a bellwether election: victory was never likely.

“They had a chance, but of course it was always a longshot,” Johnson said.

Quist was running to replace Ryan Zinke, a Republican who had been reelected by a 15-point margin in November. President Trump won the state by 20 points. A Democrat has not won a race for the state’s congressional seat since 1994.

Working in Quist’s favor was the fact that the state’s Democratic governor was also just reelected by a wide margin in November, over Greg Gianforte.

“Gianforte is not Donald Trump,” Wilmer said.

Quist outperformed Clinton by 9 percentage points, but that was still not enough. Gianforte won with slightly over 50 percent of the vote.

“It shows how difficult it will be for the Democrats to flip seats in areas where Trump won with 20 percentage points or more,” Gronke said. “Those are solid Republican areas, regardless of how much the President may be struggling in the polls.”

There are lessons to be learned in Montana for Republicans as well.

Even with the vocal support of the president, the vice president, and the president’s oldest son, Gianforte underperformed compared to Trump and Zinke’s numbers in November.

The confrontation with Jacobs followed weeks of Gianforte evading attempts to nail down his position on the AHCA, which a majority of voters disapprove of. Ultimately, he managed to win without taking a clear stand, but other candidates may not be that lucky.

Trump’s approval rating remains higher in Montana than many other parts of the country. While there is a lot of debate and concern about the president’s policies, Johnson said the issues remain too abstract to sway the opinions of many Montanans.

“Very few people have felt the effects in their pocketbook of any sort,” he said.

Though Republicans have prevailed in special elections in Montana and Kansas and forced a runoff in Georgia, each race has demonstrated a substantial shift toward Democrats that portends serious challenges in more contested districts in 2018.

Montana Democrats are already looking forward to a rematch when Gianforte is up for reelection next year, when they expect Trump and his policies will be even less popular and voters will have plenty of time to mull over Gianforte’s alleged criminal behavior before casting their vote.

“[The people of Montana] should not have to be represented by a man who is currently facing an assault charge for body slamming another person. Greg Gianforte should not be sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives while his assault case is still pending in court,” Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan said in a statement.

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