Quist’s Last Stand and the Evolving Saga of the Montana Democratic Party

By Matthew Foldi

After the dust settled in Big Sky Country, Republican Greg Gianforte was declared the winner in Montana’s special election, continuing the state’s history since 1997 of electing Republicans to its lone House seat. The race received national attention as it drew to a close, in large part due to Gianforte’s now-infamous alleged “body-slam” of a reporter the day prior to the election. At that point, roughly two-thirds of the votes had been cast early, and Democrat Rob Quist never had a chance to effectively respond.

There are two salient questions that emerge for national discussion in the aftermath of this unusual election: what is the role of early voting, and should Montana ban robocalls?

On Election Day, the New York Times ran an op-ed stating “now Montana knows why early voting is bad.” What is the solution to avoid cases such as this?

Even if voting was conducted predominantly on Election Day, Quist may not have been able to capitalize on his opponent’s behavior. While people from across the country attest to their hatred of robocalls, this election might be an instance where they would have been helpful. In Montana, robocalls are illegal, and Democrats certainly lost an opportunity to make a last-ditch effort to contact voters throughout the state. Is a law like this the best policy?

Many perceive Montana to be a ruby red state, but Senator Steve Daines was the first Republican to hold his Senate seat in Montana in over 100 years, and its Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, beat Gianforte this past November on his way to winning a second term.

The next political battle looming on Montana’s horizon is Senator Jon Tester’s re-election in 2018. Tester has no shortage of national connections from his recent stint running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (he can also likely count on support from his friends in Pearl Jam once again), but it is certain he will face a highly contested election. History shows that campaigns matter, and Gianforte’s win might set Tester up against a formidable opponent.

Gianforte himself is out of consideration in this campaign; if he had lost, Republicans would almost certainly nominate someone else to take on Tester, and throughout the special election campaign Gianforte stated that, if elected, he would run for re-election, not a promotion. However, if Gianforte successfully navigates the aftermath of his body-slamming fiasco, he could potentially run for governor in 2020 because Bullock will be term-limited out of office. This leaves the door relatively wide open for a proven vote-getter on a statewide level to challenge Tester.

Montana’s Republican Attorney General, Tim Fox, was re-elected in 2016 by a blowout margin, receiving more votes than Donald Trump and Bullock. In fact, Fox’s 332,766 votes is almost 100,000 more votes than Tester received in 2012, which was his best performance in a Senate race in terms of both his margin of victory and vote total. While performances in state and federal races obviously do not translate perfectly, Fox’s record is that of a proven vote-getter in statewide elections. Republicans began courting Fox to challenge Tester even before Gianforte won. The Republican bench in Montana is certainly strong, and it’s possible that Fox would face a crowded primary (should he choose to run). Tester has never won an election to the Senate with a majority, and facing someone like Fox could be his toughest challenge yet.

While Quist was certainly the biggest loser of the night, Governor Steve Bullock inadvertently took a hit as well. On the obvious level, his former rival was just elected to Montana’s sole congressional seat, but he also lost a valuable platform to talk about his vision for the Democratic Party. It currently seems that anyone and everyone is planning on running for president as a Democrat in 2020, and Bullock’s name has found itself on many lists of prominent Democrats who are at least mulling bids of their own. In recent weeks, Bullock has taken to the pages of the New York Times to argue that Democrats “should take a more expansive view of the America that exists beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard,” and that “Montana Democrats have some secret recipe, given that we’ve won the last four elections for governor.”

Again, federal and state races are quite different, and a secret recipe in one might boil over in another, but if Quist had won, Bullock would have had an easy case to make that he and former Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer are not unique phenomena in their ability to win elections statewide in Montana. Indeed, if a single-payer health care supporting, nudist colony performing Democrat who didn’t have a hunting license could win in Montana, anything would be possible!

While much has been made of Gianforte’s problems as a candidate in the final stretch, Montana Democrats have an abysmal record of picking candidates for special elections in recent years. After Democratic Senator John Walsh bowed out of the 2014 senate race, Montana Democrats nominated state Rep. Amanda Curtis, a self-proclaimed “anarchist at heart” who “mocks religion, gun ownership, family values, and concern over the national debt,” to run for the seat.

During the 2014 campaign, Curtis definitively stated: “I’m not a sacrificial lamb. I’m going to win, and I’m going to come out swinging for the fences, and I believe this is a winnable campaign.” Republican Steve Daines won by almost 20 points, and Curtis’s 40% was the worst performance of a Democrat in that Senate seat in at least 100 years.

Fortunately for Tester, it is possible that he will be able to win re-election without a plurality once again. In 2012, the Libertarian Party’s candidate received far more votes than the margin that separated Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg, and, at least initially, it seemed like a distinct possibility that the Libertarian would act as a spoiler once again. Liberal groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars propping up Dan Cox in 2012, in a successful effort to siphon off conservative voters from Rehberg, and ProPublica concluded that “dark money helped Democrats hold a key senate seat.” The main question for Tester is, how much can he outperform Quist by?

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Cameron Erickson
Guest

Great article, Foldi! Pretty spot on analysis, but do you think the bodyslam thing would have had much more effect had the Democrats been able to rapid-response better with auto-dialing?

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