By Jim Ellis
May 26, 2017 — Bozeman, Montana businessman and former gubernatorial nominee Greg Gianforte (R) shrugged off a 24-hour media pounding last evening. The congressional candidate, besieged with attacks over his election eve physical altercation with a Guardian-US publication reporter, rebounded to defeat country folk singer Rob Quist, 50-44 percent, in the state’s at-large special congressional election.
The victory margin translates into a 24,027-vote edge, from a voting universe of just under 375,000 people with one county still to report, who either came to the polls or mailed a pre-election day absentee ballot. The turnout is a special election record, and actually exceeds the number who voted in the state’s most recent mid-term (2014). The numbers are unusually high because the Montana at-large seat is the largest congressional district in the country, housing over one million residents.
The special congressional vote was made necessary when former at-large Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Whitefish) was appointed US Interior Secretary. The major political parties nominated their candidates in convention, a process that produced Gianforte for the Republicans, which had been expected since he had run a close gubernatorial bid in November, and Quist for the Democrats.
In the end, the final result was not as close as several final pre-election media stories predicted. There were several pieces, even in conservative publications, that left the door wide open for a Quist upset finish, and the writers were already beginning to spin how this Montana election result would reflect poorly on President Trump.
But, there was never any hard evidence to support an upset scenario. While at least two analysts referred to “close polling”, or that “Gianforte’s lead has slipped to low single-digits”, no such survey ever appeared in the public domain. Just five research studies were released during the campaign’s post-nomination phase, and all found Gianforte leading between six and 15 points.
The clear indication of Gianforte’s secure lead was the Democrats not releasing any of their own polling, something they tend to do when their candidate has an advantage, and the volume of outside money being spent. While the national Republican apparatus and groups supporting Gianforte’s conservative positions were coming into the state and dropping over $6 million, the Democratic counterparts and their allies did not even invest $1 million.
Therefore, polling aside, these observation points told us that the Democratic establishment had little confidence Quist could actually pull the upset victory despite what proved to be the first-time candidate’s prodigious fundraising. Mostly through small donations from activists across the country, Quist reportedly broke through the $6 million mark in campaign receipts.
In the end, Gianforte’s margin was not far from the most recent Republican winners when they first won the at-large seat in an open configuration. Current US Sen. Steve Daines, when he first won the congressional post in 2012, scored a 53-43 percent victory. In 2014, after Daines opted to run for the Senate, Zinke came onto the political scene and scored a 55-40 percent victory in the GOP national wave election.
Gianforte will serve the balance of the current term and, at the party nomination convention, promised to seek re-election next year. Holding true to this commitment means he will eschew the opportunity to challenge Sen. Jon Tester (D), as the latter stands for a third term in the coming regular 2018 election.