Special election results raise questions about Tester’s 2018 reelection bid

May 29, 2017 GMT

MISSOULA — The morning after Republican Greg Gianforte secured a clear, if narrow, victory to become Montana’s next congressman, party leaders and political observers parsed the results for clues about what the 2018 U.S. Senate race might look like.

At 10:33 p.m. Thursday, on the heels of independent and media election observers, the Montana Secretary of State called the race a victory for Gianforte. The final tally showed the Republican with 50.2 percent, Democrat Rob Quist with 44.1 percent and Libertarian Mark Wicks with 5.7 percent of the nearly 380,000 ballots.

Gianforte’s 6-point margin of victory is smaller than other Republicans secured in 2016: Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 20 points and Ryan Zinke beat Denise Juneau by 16 points. Both political parties say the results provide favorable insights for the 2018 Senate race between Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and whomever Republicans select to face him in a contest that could start late this year.

Some had speculated that Gianforte himself might seek the seat after gaining a toehold in U.S. Congress as a member of the House. Political analysts say Gianforte’s lackluster victory, coupled with continued fallout from his recent citation for misdemeanor assault of a journalist, might hurt his chances of securing the party and donor support necessary for that run, or should he decide to make a second bid to become Montana governor in 2020.

Rob Saldin called it “an open question.”

“If he does run, what kind of support will he get from the party? Do they support him the same way they did this time?” asked the University of Montana political scientist. “Gianforte personally is more vulnerable. He’s run twice now. He lost the first and won the second one by a much smaller margin than other Republicans.”

Even before it was clear Thursday night that Quist had lost, advisers to his campaign and the Montana Democratic Party were arguing Gianforte’s assault citation was “the beginning of the end” of his political career.

But GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann said Thursday’s results were hurt little, if at all, by Gianforte’s citation. In fact, the incident might have improved his likability among some Republican voters.

“Frankly, I think he’s showed he’s a human, you know. There’s certain voters that don’t respond to the engineer, businessman persona and do respond to somebody that’s human who, that when he’s pushed, he’s gonna react,” he said.

Regardless of whether Gianforte is the party’s pick, Essmann expressed confidence about the 2018 race.

“We’ve got a strong bench of Republican candidates. A lot of people kicking the tires. Last night, a big win, is going to encourage some people to take a look and think about making the commitment to run for that seat.”

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican, suggested the recent election could be a good indicator of voter interest next year.

“We’ll probably expect almost identical turnout,” he said. “If this was similar to 2014, we will almost look for a 55 percent turnout in 2018, plus a premium for a U.S. Senate race because of the spending. So maybe that’s 57 or 58 percent depending on how competitive it is.”

About half of the state’s registered voters cast ballots — a near-match of the 2014 midterm election, but fewer than the 2016 general election, when nearly three-quarters voted. Analysts say the figure is impressive given that special elections historically draw fewer people to the polls.

Perhaps, they say, it is not surprising given the more than $17 million poured into the 85-day contest largely by national political organizations. Some wonder if Montana might finally see the same kind of spending on a U.S. Senate races seen in other states, where $20 million to $50 million has become fairly common in recent years.

“The tea leaves I see are green,” said Lee Banville, a University of Montana professor of journalism and politics. “There’s going to be a lot of money in this race.”

Constitutional law and campaign finance expert Anthony Johnstone agreed. He said the candidate selection in the special election could be indicative of the 2018 primaries and how both parties recruit their preferred frontrunners.

Gianforte and Quist “were selected, in this case by the parties, for name recognition and donor network more than policy or character issues or experience,” he said, noting other leading contenders in the nomination process had years of political service under their belts as legislators or in other positions. “That’s going to create an environment where we may see some surprise.”

Since the Supreme Court of the United States opened up corporate spending in politics and triggered the formation of “dark money” groups known as Super PACs, Johnstone said the ability to raise big money has become an issue earlier than ever in campaigns. Rather than simply being a strategy decision in the general election, more and more candidates are deciding whether to even run in the primary because of their depth of ties, or lack thereof, with donors.

Millions was spent by both Democrat- and Republican-leaning groups in the special election, “but the sources of that money couldn’t have been more different,” Johnstone said.

“Largely because of outside spending, Greg Gianforte’s support came from primarily billionaire-funded super PACs and wealthy donors inside and outside Montana,” he said. “Quist’s financial base was primarily small-dollar donors, both directly to his campaign and, to a limited extent, made to outside interest groups.”

That make-up matches other recent federal races and could again be the pattern seen in 2018.

Despite the big spending in the special election, not all counties saw the same level of voter engagement.

Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College, noted that, at least at first blush, it appeared turnout was depressed somewhat in Missoula and Gallatin counties, possibly because most of the liberal-leaning college students who live there had already left for summer internships and jobs, or had trouble voting because of address changes.

“The problem Democrats had wasn’t the turnout,” he said. “In the swing areas, they didn’t do that well.”

Yellowstone County is the state’s most populous, accounting for 14 percent of all ballots cast Thursday. To win a statewide election, Democrats “have to lose close” there, said Saldin, the UM political science professor.

“It wasn’t successful this time,” Saldin said of Democrats’ ground organizing with volunteers for Quist. “How much time did Quist actually spend in Billings? He seemed to spend a lot of time in Missoula.”

Those results could be troubling for Democrats after Juneau, the 2016 candidate for the same seat, only brought in 36 percent of the votes, almost the same as Quist. Gov. Steve Bullock, however, secured 48 percent of the ballots in his run for re-election.

Quist also lost Cascade County, an urban area that once reliably voted for Democrats but has become increasing competitive as Republicans have spent time and money building a network there since 2010. The margin was closer with Quist earning 42 percent of the votes, again a figure that almost perfectly matches that of Juneau. Again, Bullock performed bette,r with 54 percent support.

“It has to do with how much the votes are about issues and how much they are about politics,” Banville suggested. “The more that it’s become a national thing, a referendum on Trump or whatever, the more it didn’t help Quist. If we’re talking about the kind of tactical issues like public lands access, these are things that people think about in slightly more nuanced ways,” Banville said, noting that Bullock’s advantage could be as simple as the fact state races tend to focus more on issues of local importance and policy decisions than the bigger national tug-o-war between the political parties.

“Congress is not making those kinds of decisions, but Tester has been good at sort of peeling off an issue that will help him resonate with more rural voters or ag voters or veterans, and those can really help win counties like Cascade.”

Johnson also wondered if Democrats might have pushed potential voters too hard. There’s a fine line, he said, between buying enough fliers, text messages and television ads to motivate potential voters to get to the polls, and having spent so much they instead become annoyed and apathetic.

“Some people were probably over-contacted,” he said.

That balance might be more difficult for national organizations to gauge when advertising is cheaper in Montana than many other places around the country and voters here do not regularly see such big money and sophisticated, personal targeting used in state-level campaigns.

Nonetheless, Johnson said some positives can be found in the Quist results.

“Democrats are doing 10 to 15 points better than in November’s federal races. Certainly, he outperformed some other Democrats, like Hillary Clinton and Denise Juneau,” he said. “While you can flip certain areas, it’s not yet enough to flip predominately rural areas.”

On their own, rural counties do not make a big impact on the results. But add up 10 counties with 2,000 voters and a candidate can amplify or negate the effect of a larger county like Silver Bow. Places like that, Quist won big, while Gianforte dominated in the rural counties.

“We have to see how the Trump administration is doing in 2018. If Trump loses more of his popularity rating, it’s possible it would make Montana more competitive,” Johnson said.

Yet, he noted the state differs significantly from some other areas — such as those surrounding New York or Minneapolis — with a significant number of Trump supporters who tend to be highly educated and suburban. The president did not campaign on some of the social issues of evangelical conservatives that had been a big draw of Republican support in the past, so how his policies affect pocketbooks will be key. Depending on the particular policies Trump pushes and whom they benefit — urban or rural communities, wealthy or working-class families — Montana conservatives either might double down on Trump or start to pull away.

Overall, Saldin said drawing conclusions about the 2018 Senate race from the recent special election is fraught because of one important fact: Tester is an incumbent, which Quist was not.

“Tester has been around long enough that I wouldn’t say this foreshadows the outcome,” he said. “But in general Democrats always have to run a little scared in Montana. That even includes Tester.”

The Montana Democratic Party is gearing up, having hired Chris Meagher to anchor initial work on Tester’s campaign until a full team is hired. He suggested Thursday’s results won’t dictate much about their re-election strategy.

“It doesn’t change anything he’s going to do,” Meagher said.