Republicans were celebrating Friday, and relieved, and it was easy to see why: The party hung on to Montana’s sole congressional seat even though its candidate faced a freshly lodged criminal charge for physically assaulting a reporter on election eve.
Though they fell short in yet another special election — Greg Gianforte won handily, 50% to 44% — Democrats also found reason to be pleased: Their candidate, flawed as he was, continued a pattern of polling better than might be expected — “over-performing,” to use the political parlance, and that could hold future promise.
It’s possible, as elections analyst Nathan Gonzales put it, to lose and still have momentum.
From a practical standpoint, all that matters for now is that Gianforte is headed to Washington. (Under the rules of Congress, he faces no obstacle taking his seat despite a misdemeanor citation.)
His addition will bolster the GOP House majority and give Speaker Paul D. Ryan a bit more leeway as he seeks to crowbar legislation, like the highly fraught healthcare overhaul, through a tight space.
For the GOP, it marked the third straight election since President Trump took office in which they either held onto a vacant House seat or, in the case of Georgia, staved off defeat. A runoff in that contest is set for June 20 and right now looks to be a toss-up.
The result in Montana is a reminder, while the notion may cause a rush of blood to liberal heads, that Trump remains reasonably popular in a broad, heavily rural swath of America. For all the money and effort the left poured into the contest, Democrat Rob Quist recognized as much; he avoided personal attacks on Trump and said explicitly he was not making the contest a referendum on the president.
Gianforte, in turn, embraced Trump, campaigning alongside Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s son, Donald Jr., and echoing the president’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric in Thursday night’s victory speech. (He also apologized to Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter he attacked when politely asked about the GOP healthcare bill.)
But the loss doesn’t necessarily bode poorly for Democrats or their hopes of taking control of the House in 2018.
Montana was Gianforte’s to lose. Republicans have held the state’s lone House seat since Bill Clinton was in the White House. That explains why the national Democratic Party put up only a half-hearted fight and the nominee ended up being Quist, an amiable cowboy troubadour with a diffident campaign style and checkered personal financial history.
The physical altercation that consumed the final hours of the campaign came much too late to have a meaningful effect; by the time it happened, nearly 7 in 10 Montanans had already cast their ballots.
While it is tempting, and a professional hazard, to read too much into any one special election, certain patterns can be gleaned.
As David Wasserman, a nonpartisan analyst with the Cook Political Report, recently wrote, “Taken collectively, the margins in specials can tell us a good deal about the political environment — and so far, it’s looking really bad for Republicans.”
In the three races so far to fill vacant congressional seats, in Kansas, Georgia and Montana, the Democratic candidates have run much stronger than Hillary Clinton in 2016 or the Democrat who sought those seats in 2014. In Kansas, one of the most solidly Republican states in the country, the GOP candidate won by 7% compared with the 31% margin for GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo, who stepped down to head the CIA.
In Montana, Quist lost by 6%, a 10-point improvement on the last Democrat who ran. (The seat was vacated when two-term lawmaker Ryan Zinke resigned to run the Interior Department.)
If the pattern holds until November 2018 — which is by no means certain — that would very much benefit Democrats, suggesting the energy that has manifested in protest rallies and street demonstrations is translating into more participation at the polls.
The next test will come in the suburbs of Atlanta, where Republican Tom Price won reelection in 2016 by a 24-point margin. Price gave up the seat to head the Department of Health and Human Services, and Democrat John Ossoff came just shy of winning the seat in April, when he finished the first round of balloting with 48%.
But a few words of caution are in order.
In 2006 and 2010, two special elections were closely watched as barometers of what was to come. Republicans won the 2006 race and Democrats prevailed in 2010, only to lose control of the House just a few months later.
Perhaps the best advice is the least satisfying for those eager to divine the political future: Wait until November 2018.
“We’ll look a lot smarter talking about these special elections after the midterm is over,” said Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan guide Inside Elections. “Then we’ll be able to see which of these early trends to discard and which of them really mattered.”
@markzbarabak on Twitter