MISSOULA, Mont. — The closer-than-expected Montana special election is destined to be picked apart for clues about how voters feel about Donald Trump’s young presidency.
Like the record-breaking Georgia special election that will be decided next month — already the most expensive House race in history — the Montana contest between Republican businessman Greg Gianforte and Democratic musician Rob Quist is awash in money, nearly doubling the price tag of the state’s previously most-expensive campaign.
The outcome of the at-large House race won’t just serve as an early look at Trump’s standing with voters in a red state he carried easily. It will also provide insight into the conditions Republicans are likely to face in the midterm elections, when the House majority could be in jeopardy.
But complicating matters, a bizarre election-eve incident Wednesday night drew national attention as Gianforte allegedly body-slammed a reporter who was asking him about the GOP’s health care plan, sparking an investigation from the local sheriff just hours before polls opened. Gianforte was subsequently cited for "misdemeanor assault."
Here are POLITICO’s six things to watch as Montana votes Thursday:
THE TRUMP (AND PENCE) EFFECT
This is the rare special election in which Trump hasn’t been a flash point.
With the White House stuck in turmoil and the president’s approval ratings plummeting nationwide, Democrats have been eager to tie Republicans directly to the president — just not in Montana, where Trump won by 21 points in November.
Quist rarely mentions the president on the stump, while Gianforte hugs him close, adorning his events with Trump stickers and peppering his standard speech with mentions of the president. He’s also received in-person visits from Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence. In the past three days, the White House has even chipped in with separate robocalls from the president and vice president, urging voters to support Gianforte.
“I’m actually kind of surprised that Trump hasn’t been an issue on either side,” said former GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, who held the congressional seat from 2001 through January 2013.
Democrats are hoping Trump’s constant controversies will prove costly, even if Quist isn’t explicitly making the race a referendum on the president. “With all the stuff going on with the president right now, there’s a lot of buyers’ remorse,” said Montana Democratic Party Chairman Jim Larson. “Now there’s a real worry that we’re going to send in another Donald Trump."
“The Trump factor is different in different states, but Democrats despising Trump is the same everywhere,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, a Montana native. "It unites the Democrat Montanan, Alaskan, and in Manhattan."
JUST HOW ENERGIZED IS THE DEMOCRATIC BASE?
No one here has any idea what the turnout will be because of the timing of the election: a Thursday before a long weekend in May.
An especially high figure in the Democratic portions of the state would bolster party hopes of a surge of grass-roots energy that could sweep races all over the country.
“It’s going to be a lot closer than people think,” predicted Lake. “Turnout is going to matter a lot, but the mail-by-vote program helps [Quist] a lot, too.”
Republicans fought successfully against changes to the state’s vote-by-mail program that would have helped Quist and other Democrats, but more than one-third of registered voters had submitted their ballots — including some by mail where that was permitted — by the end of Monday.
Republicans believe Quist has a small lead in the already-submitted votes but that Gianforte will overtake that at the ballot box on Thursday.
Most eyes will be on Billings, the largest city in the state, where operatives expect most undecided voters will be. Quist will also be relying on a high turnout in Missoula, home to the University of Montana, and Gianforte will need a large GOP turnout in the Bozeman area, where he lives. The Republican will also need to do better in rural counties than he did during his failed gubernatorial run in 2016, and early-voting turnout in those places is already up.
Longtime Democratic strategist Matt McKenna, who is working with Quist, noted that the Democrat’s rallies sometimes overflow, so enthusiasm appears to be high. But, he said, “The same people who tell you they know what turnout is going to be are the people who try to get you to buy a time share in Panama City, Florida."
THE GOP FREAK-OUT WATCH
Republicans have been on high alert since Democrats came far closer than expected to picking off the suburban Wichita, Kansas, seat vacated by now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo in April. Now, with Gianforte’s long-expected win in question and a June vote in a suburban Atlanta congressional district looking tight as well, national GOP leaders could face a panic in the ranks if Quist wins.
Most still think that won’t happen — Rehberg predicted that Quist won’t break 42 or 43 percent — but they still acknowledge that anything could happen after the state was flooded with $17 million in spending just over two months.
While there’s been little reliable public polling on the contest, internal GOP polls have shown a tighter-than-expected finish, and national Republicans have accordingly thrown extra resources at Gianforte.
The GOP understands the stakes in the race and the election’s potential to unnerve members of Congress. That’s why Trump, Pence and other high-profile Republicans have gotten involved.
“Across the country, Democrats and the liberal Left are looking to win Special Elections, hoping to show that the conservative movement can be defeated — and embarrass President Trump,” wrote Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a fundraising email on behalf of Gianforte.
Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio also joined Cruz in emailing on the candidate’s behalf in the final hours, and the National Rifle Association chipped in with its own phone banking.
“It’s behaving like a high-profile, nationalized Senate race. If this race had been a conventional race, with 435 seats up, this race would have been over a hundred days ago,” explained Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican who held the seat from 2013 through January 2015. “Look at the money coming in. Clearly it’s been elevated, so it’s created a dynamic that’s a bit unusual."
THE POLITICS OF REPEAL AND REPLACE
If Gianforte’s closing message has been to tie himself to Trump, Quist’s has been to talk nonstop about the GOP’s health care plan.
The Democrat is relying on a national playbook that his party has adopted in the wake of the House passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, directly reminding voters how much the unpopular law’s adoption would affect their coverage. He’s even tried turning some of the GOP’s toughest hits against him — that he’s dodged his taxes — into a broader narrative about how much health woes can weigh on individual lives.
Gianforte, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to escape the health care talk ever since he was caught praising the AHCA in a private call with Washington lobbyists the same day he had refused to take a stance on it publicly. That wasn’t his only unforced error on the issue: Gianforte’s election-eve scuffle with a reporter was sparked by questions surrounding the health care bill.
Now, the final result could hinge on whether Montanans buy Quist’s health care argument. As he says in one of his two final ads — both of which focus on the issue — “Greg Gianforte says he’s thankful for the new health care bill, the one that eliminates protections for pre-existing conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan who has one. I think Greg’s thankful because he gets another tax break at our expense."
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR 2018 … AND 2020?
Since it’s a statewide race for Montana’s lone seat in the House, Thursday’s results could send major messages about the House and Senate midterms in 2018 — and perhaps even the Democrats’ presidential primary two years later.
Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is occasionally mentioned as a potential White House hopeful after being elected statewide three times in a Republican-leaning state. He’s been traveling the country telling Democrats about how to compete in rural areas, and even though he hasn’t been front-and-center in this race, a surprise Quist win would likely give him an even larger platform.
But the results will be most telling for Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat up for reelection with a huge Republican target on his back in 2018. A large Gianforte win might increase the size of that target, indicating that Montana has turned away from Democrats like Tester.
But Tester is well-known — and likely to be well-funded — and a close result Thursday would suggest he is in better position than expected. Why? Because a Quist overperformance would be a sign of an energized Democratic base.
And local operatives are also starting to wonder whether a Gianforte loss might clear Tester’s path even further. Many Democrats expect Gianforte to run for governor in 2020 if he wins Thursday, but he would likely not be able to do so if he loses. That might clear the path for Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, who is currently mulling a Senate run against Tester that would likely be tight. But if Fox could have a clearer shot at the governorship, some now wonder, might he opt out of the Senate race?
BONUS: BODY-SLAM EDITION
The race was turned on its head Wednesday night by the confrontation in Bozeman, and after an overnight injection of investment from national Democrats and anger from Montana’s press, Thursday’s day-of voting has grown all the more important.
After Gianforte was cited for a misdemeanor assault, three of the state’s biggest papers withdrew their endorsements, and each opened the day with large headlines about the altercation. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, super PAC Priorities USA and liberal group MoveOn all rushed to push out digital ads featuring an audio recording of Gianforte pushing the reporter.
Gianforte had been counting on quietly skating through the end of the race, and operatives have long expected him to win on the back of in-person voting on Election Day after most votes were banked earlier. Roughly two-thirds of the votes were cast before Election Day, though it was unclear which candidate was leading.
But voters across the state woke up Thursday to a cacophony of chatter about the incident, both in print and on talk radio, where it was described as both the biggest local and national story.
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.