Four Questions (With Answers) From Montana’s Special Election For Congress

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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First, did Donald Trump cause candidate Greg Gianforte to body-slam Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during an interview?  Don Lemon, lecturer extraordinaire at CNN, says you have to be brain dead (or something like that) to think otherwise.  Lemon is not alone.  Many other TV and radio commentators have said Trump is to blame.  But really.  Did Bill Clinton’s inability to keep his pants on lead to rampant sexual predation?  Of course not.  People don’t look to their presidents for permission to do what they know is wrong.  Sometimes they just do what they know is wrong.  Sometimes they do stupid things.  And that was true before Trump came on the national political scene.  The Resistance only looks silly making such claims.  Particularly when there are serious policy ideas to resist.

Second, would Gianforte have won if Montana voters had not had the option of voting early?  There is no way to know with any certainty, but we do know that three Montana newspapers retracted their endorsements because of Gianforte’s election eve outburst.  Surely there were some Gianforte supporters among the 250,000 early voters who would have voted differently after learning about the assault.

Opponents of early voting, including your correspondent (here), have offered many objections to the practice, although it seems to be sweeping the nation.  The Montana election makes crystal clear that at the top of the list of objections is that something might happen.  Something big happened in Montana and it was irrelevant to the votes registered by over half of the voters who cast ballots in the election.  Democrats might want to rethink being all-in on early voting, although they probably won’t since next time they could be the beneficiaries.

Third, is Gianforte’s 7 point victory actually a win for Democrats?  According to Vox editor Matthew Yglesias (here), along with numerous other commentators, it is.  Gianforte’s opponent, Rob Quist, received 44 percent of the vote in a district where, we are told, a Democrat should expect to garner only 39 percent.  The 39 percent is based on Trump’s having won the state by a 21 percent margin.  So really, according to these analysts, Quist’s loss was actually a big victory for democrats.

Montana is variously described as “deep red” and a “safe seat” for Republicans by people who apparently know nothing about Montana politics.  Since 2005 Montana has had Democratic governors, the current governor having been reelected while Trump was winning the state by 21 points.  Since 1952 the state has been represented in the United States Senate by 6 Democrats serving a total of 19 terms and 2 Republicans serving a total of 4 terms.  It is the case that Montana’s sole congressional seat, to which Gianforte was elected, has been held by four different Republicans since 1997.  But it makes little sense to describe the district as a safe Republican seat given that far more Democrats than republicans have been elected from that very same (statewide) district.

Finally then, what explains Gianforte’s victory despite his having assaulted a reporter?  The same thing, I suspect, that explains Trumps election as president, despite his persistent bad behavior.  Gianforte won 45 of Montana’s 56 counties.  Many of the people who live in those counties are frustrated with governments seemingly run by the people in the few larger towns (Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, Butte) won by Gianforte’s opponent.  They feel like they have been getting a raw deal.  It is a feeling shared by rural and small town families across America.    Rather than read a 7 point loss as a hidden victory and blaming Gianforte’s bad behavior on President Trump, Democrats would do well to start taking seriously the people who voted for Gianforte (and Trump).  They are serious people with real grievances.  And they vote.