On Thursday, the political world will eagerly look to Montana and a closely fought congressional race for the latest test of Democratic strength and Republican resilience in the turbulent age of Trump.
The major candidates and outside groups have sunk more than $17 million into the contest, a huge sum in a state where $250,000 pays for a robust week of television advertising.
But for all that money and all the outside interest, the election will turn less on national trends than circumstances close to home: on the personalities and histories of the main contestants, their different campaign styles and, perhaps most of all, on who is regarded as the steadier, more authentic Montanan.
In a bizarre election-eve development, the Republican front-runner, Greg Gianforte, was cited for misdemeanor assault Wednesday night for allegedly body-slamming a reporter who, according to his newspaper, sought to ask the candidate about the House Republicans’ healthcare legislation.
“He took me to the ground,” Ben Jacobs told his paper, the Guardian, in an interview from the back of an ambulance. The incident occurred largely out of public view, but in an audio posted on the Guardian website, a loud crash could be heard along with Gianforte venting a string of expletives.
A spokesman for the campaign accused Jacobs of acting in a confrontational manner and instigating the tussle. “It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene,” said spokesman Shane Scanlon.
But an account by a Fox News crew in the room with Gianforte and Jacobs substantiated the reporter’s claims. “At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte,” Fox News Channel’s Alicia Acuna wrote.
Two of Montana’s largest newspapers, the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian, rescinded their endorsement of Gianforte on Wednesday night after he was accused of the assault.
Up until the spasm of violence, the election had been a mostly placid — albeit negative — affair.
On a recent weekday afternoon, sheep and other livestock outnumbered fewer than a dozen locals who turned out at an organic farm to hear Democrat Rob Quist and his attack on the healthcare overhaul.
“This is going to be devastating for rural Montana,” he warned.
He walked through a field of clover and alfalfa, then climbed back aboard his well-traveled Winnebago to cross the Bitterroot Valley and deliver more criticism of the GOP plan before a happy-hour crowd of 50 or so at a brew pub in Missoula.
The campaign of Gianforte, by contrast, is more notional, relying on few public appearances, a carpet-bombing of anti-Quist TV ads and Montana’s history the past two decades of sending Republicans to fill the state’s lone House seat in Washington.
It’s not as though President Trump isn’t a factor; that would be like ignoring the sun during a heat wave.
Gianforte has embraced the president, something he failed to do in 2016 as a candidate for governor, and has campaigned alongside Vice President Mike Pence, and twice with Trump’s son Donald Jr. “We have someone in office who’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do,” Gianforte told Montana Public Radio.
In the final hours of the race, Trump and Pence were both heard on robocalls urging Republicans to the polls.
But neither side has sought to make the race an explicit referendum on the president, or the upheaval that has Washington in fits.
“I don’t think we look at it as part of a bigger national issue,” said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who won reelection in November against Gianforte in an otherwise bullish year for state Republicans. Rather, he suggested, voters were weighing “who would you rather have a cup of coffee or beer with, and fundamentally believe will fight for you?”
Democrats need a gain of 24 seats to take control of the House, and a victory in Montana or in a runoff election next month in the Atlanta suburbs could give the party a significant boost heading into the 2018 midterm election. Republicans got a fright in April when they had to scramble to avoid a loss in deeply conservative Kansas.
Montana’s House seat was vacated when two-term Rep. Ryan Zinke left to run the Interior Department. The election was set for Thursday — unusual timing just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, which has both sides apprehensive — because Bullock wanted to fill the seat as soon as possible.
The two main candidates could hardly be more at odds.
Gianforte, 56, was born in San Diego, went to college in New Jersey and settled two decades ago in Bozeman. In 2012, he sold the software company he started in his basement, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle for $1.8 billion, walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars.
Who would you rather have a cup of coffee or beer with, and fundamentally believe will fight for you?
He used a bit of his fortune to finance an unsuccessful try for governor, antagonizing even some fellow Republicans who saw a heavy-handed attempt to buy his way into political office. Democrats exploited the notion, portraying Gianforte as an outsider and elitist, embodied by a lawsuit he filed over public access to a popular fishing spot on his property on the East Gallatin River.
Quist has reprised the attack. “He sued,” Quist says in one of his ads, striding through a green field alongside the river, “trying to take our land for himself.”
Gianforte said the litigation — since resolved — was over the location of an easement, not keeping people out. But in a state where hunting and fishing are holy rites, the dispute caused grave political harm. He lost to Bullock, 50% to 46%, even though Trump carried the state by more than 20%, Zinke won handy reelection and Republicans captured four of Montana’s five statewide offices.
The results were a personal repudiation of Gianforte, said Scott Sales, the Republican leader of the state Senate, and “nothing’s changed since then.”
One important difference, though, is a less-adept opponent.
Quist, 69, is a fifth-generation Montanan and bluegrass musician whose squinty eyes, laconic manner and dusty boots could not make him more quintessentially cowboy. He has spent decades appearing throughout the state; in Victor, home to about 800 residents, he mentioned performing once at the junior prom.
But the campaign has also revealed a less-flattering side of the amiable troubadour, involving lawsuits, tax liens, and a messy personal finance history, which Republicans have amplified in TV ads suggesting Quist is a scofflaw and cheat with values, personal and political, that are anathema to Montana.
“Nancy Pelosi in a cowboy hat,” jibed one spot, tying Quist to the liberalism of Democrats’ House leader.
Though he travels relentlessly, scouring for each vote he can, Quist does not seem to particularly relish campaigning. Stumping with fellow musician Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of Sha Na Na, Quist let his companion do most of the talking and answer as many or more questions. In Missoula, he wandered into the crowd and missed the cue when Bauman summoned him for a closing duet.
In an interview aboard his RV, Quist allowed as how a longer campaign would have given him pause. “But the fact this was going to be a short election cycle,” he said, “I thought that would be something I could manage, three months.”
While Quist avoids mention of Trump — he said nothing the day news broke of the president’s alleged effort to stymie an FBI probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — he has made the House Republican healthcare bill a centerpiece of his campaign.
More than 70,000 Montanans would lose coverage if the legislation became law, he tells audiences, and thousands more would suffer huge rate hikes. He uses his own financial troubles, growing from a botched gall bladder operation and years of health issues, as the argument for expanded coverage.
He says negotiations over changing the law need to be more inclusive, and pokes at the wealthy Gianforte.
“There’s enough millionaires in Congress making decisions like this healthcare bill,” he told a crowd of about three dozen at a coffee house in Hamilton, back in the Bitterroot Valley. “We need someone who’s going to represent the rest of us.”
Gianforte, for his part, didn’t help himself when he claimed to be undecided on the House bill and then was heard, on a tape recording obtained by the New York Times, offering supportive remarks to a group of Republican-leaning Washington lobbyists.
Asked about the disparity between his public and private comments, Gianforte said he was “thankful” GOP lawmakers had taken the first step toward repealing and replacing the federal healthcare law, but did not endorse specific legislation.
Republicans committed to the race early, raking Quist with negative advertising as soon as he emerged in early March as the Democrats’ nominee. The national Democratic Party, by contrast, largely wrote off the contest until liberal activists around the country began pouring money into the state as part of the anti-Trump resistance; $1 million has come in the last week alone, as the president’s travails have mounted.
Overall, Quist has raised more than $6 million, an astonishing amount for Montana in such a short period, but the question is whether the cash flow — and Gianforte’s reported attack on a reporter — came too late to make much difference. Voting has been underway since mid-April, and by Wednesday more than 250,000 ballots — which could be well over half — had already been cast.
May 25, 12:05 p.m.: This story has been updated with report of Gianforte’s misdemeanor charge and Montana newspapers rescinding their endorsement of him.
May 24, 9:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with an eyewitness account from a Fox News crew.
May 24, 6:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with reports of Gianforte’s alleged physical attack on a reporter Wednesday.
May 24, 4:47 p.m.: This story has been updated with Trump’s robocalls and a new total spent on the race.
May 24, 8:45 a.m.: The story has been updated with the number of absentee ballots returned and Quist’s fundraising totals.
May 23, 3:55 p.m.: This article was updated for additional background on what Democrats would need to do to regain control of the House.
This story was originally posted on May 23 at 11:45 a.m.