Body-Slamming in the Big Sky State By Heather E. Yates
The special election in Montana’s at-large district this week was relatively low-key until it took a bizarre twist Wednesday night when the Republican candidate, Greg Gianforte, was charged with misdemeanor assault after The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs’ recording device caught the altercation on record.
Although Gianforte was predicted to win the election, some voters who cast early ballots inquired of their local election officials about changing their original vote, suggesting they had voted for Gianforte and wanted to switch to Rob Quist. According to Montana election law, like many states, there is no legal option to amend a ballot once cast.
Gianforte won the election by 6 points. The incident appears to have had little impact on the result; however, the results may obfuscate the fact that ballots cast in early voting did not reflect the late developments. Seldom do last minute campaign “surprises” swing an election to the opposition, but this development suggested that new information was still consequential for some voters although it might have been too late to capture the effect.
The election was predicted to be a tight race with Gianforte favored to win. Democrats remained hopeful to upset the GOP and viewed the at-large House district as a keen test of the Trump referendum theory because Gianforte’s campaign platform mirrored many of President Trump’s policy positions.
The optimism was grounded in the fact that Big Sky country is still effectively purple making it particularly distinctive given recent trends. Montana may be one of the few places where voters still practice split ticket voting. As a result, the state’s top two constitutional officers are Democrats while its Congressional delegation is largely Republican. Yet, Hillary Clinton lost by 20 points and Ryan Zinke won the at-large district by 80,000 votes. Democrats were hopeful this could be the one, putting their own populist candidate, Rob Quist, up against tech entrepreneur Greg Gianforte.
Big-league support from the Democratic National Committee was noticeably absent. Quist’s campaign relied on grass-roots operations and functioned on small donations until the final 12-weeks. The campaign benefited from increased visibility and intensive fundraising that pushed the campaign over the $5 million threshold, tightening the race against Gianforte, but this wasn’t sufficient to flip the state’s only House district.
The GOP was in familiar, yet uncomfortable territory. While Gianforte had a double-digit lead heading into the election, the Republican National Committee took no chance and deployed Vice President Mike Pence with pre-recorded phone calls to mobilize supporters.
After the charges against Gianforte surfaced, Republican leadership went silent to create distance from the incident. Individual members of the Republican Conference took to social media to condemn Gianforte’s behavior. Paul Ryan issued a soft public reproach on Election Day and three major newspapers rescinded their endorsement.
The implications of Gianforte’s victory hang over the Republican Party as it tries to define its path as the governing party and not exclusively the political opposition. Gianforte issued an apology at his victory speech, but it remains to be seen if or how he will be welcomed into the GOP Caucus.
Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices (Palgrave).