Setting the Record Straight

By Jim Ellis

May 30, 2017 — More incorrect post-election analysis is coming to the forefront after last week’s Montana special congressional election.

After a similar Kansas special electoral contest in April yielded stories saying that a 7,600-vote Republican victory was an under-performance and reflected poorly upon a besieged President Donald Trump, similar analyses came immediately after Greg Gianforte’s 23,000-vote (22,990) win last Thursday over Democratic nominee Rob Quist.

In response to the media stories in April, we pointed out that the 52-46 percent Ron Estes victory in Kansas’ Wichita anchored district was only slightly behind previous open seat or challenger GOP victories – Todd Tiahrt first converting the seat in 1994 with 53 percent and Mike Pompeo winning the open district seven years ago with 59 percent – rather than a precursor to a coming Democratic wave election. In both the Kansas and Montana post-election analysis, the past Republican-Democrat performance was generally only defined as how the candidates performed in the 2016 and 2012 presidential elections, while failing to account for the particular region’s more complete voting history.

The New York Times ran a story last Friday, the day after the Montana election, that portrayed liberal Democratic base activists as being upset with the party chieftains who didn’t prioritize converting the at-large Big Sky Country campaign. Again, the 50-44 percent Republican victory was couched as Quist being in range for an upset if more outside support would have come from national Democratic party organizations and affiliated outside organizations. Citing President Trump’s 20-point victory in the state as basically the sole determining factor as Montana being a “solid Republican state”, the Gianforte victory pales in comparison.

The activists’ may be right that the party organizations should have come in with greater support for Quist but the analysis is incorrect in portraying the at-large seat as a GOP lock. While a Republican should be considered a favorite ahead of an open federal contest here, the analyses fail to account for a very credible Democratic record here even in recent past elections.

Most specifically, Montana voters have a Democratic US senator, Jon Tester, who stands for a third term next year, a Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, who won a second term over Gianforte in the same election where Trump recorded his landslide win over Hillary Clinton, and all of the statewide positions with the exception of the attorney general’s office went Democratic as recently as the 2012 election. Even former Rep. Ryan Zinke’s two at-large congressional victories failed to reach 57 percent, and Sen. Steve Daines (R), coming from the House three years ago, didn’t reach 60 percent in a 2014 wave election where he was a prohibitive favorite.

It is important to note that while the national Democratic organizations did little to help Quist, particularly in comparison to national Republican spending, the Quist campaign raised an impressive $6 million-plus, mostly from small Internet contributions transmitted from across the country. The analyses also fail to mention that Quist’s strong emphasis on the healthcare issue, particularly the Republican bill that he claimed jeopardized pre-existing condition insurance coverage, failed to carry the day last Thursday.

Rather amusingly, the New York Times post-election story termed both recent Republican special election candidates, Estes in Kansas and Montana’s Gianforte, as “lackluster”. While the Estes campaign clearly put forth a lesser effort than one might have expected, such cannot be said of the Gianforte endeavor.

Seeing a candidate spend at least $5 million from his congressional campaign committee, in addition to about $9 million for the governor’s campaign just completed in November, including dropping an aggregate $6.5 million of personal funds into both contests, running virtually non-stop media ads, and so-called “body slamming” a reporter in a physical altercation the day before the election would suggest that Gianforte is anything but “lackluster!”

Now the focus will firmly switch to the upcoming June 20 Georgia special election where both sides are combining to expend more for a congressional election than at any time in American history. It is here where the battle lines for the future should clearly come into focus.

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