Why a Democrat Could Win Today in Montana

Today, Montana will host the fourth Congressional special election of the Trump era. Republican candidate Greg Gianforte is facing off against Democratic candidate Rob Quist for the seat recently vacated by United States Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Although Montana is typically considered a deep-red state, betting markets are giving Quist about a 40% chance of pulling off the upset. Here are several reasons why he has a shot:

Democrats Have Been Successful Here in the Past

Although Montana is a very Republican state at the presidential level (Trump won by 20 points and Romney won by 14 points), Democrats have been successful at the Gubernatorial and Senatorial levels. Montana’s current Democratic Governor Steve Bullock and current Democratic Senator Jon Tester both won by 4 points in their most recent elections. However, this success has not yet carried over to Montana’s single Congressional district, which has been held by Republicans since 1997.

Democratic Candidate Rob Quist — Source: Billings Gazette

Trump’s Approval Rating is Tanking

Congressional elections are often considered referendums on the incumbent president. This is bad news for Republicans, since Trump’s net approval rating of -15 is pretty bad for just a few months into his term. Although most of Trump’s core supporters are sticking with him, this won’t necessarily be enough for Republicans to keep winning elections. A combination of increased Democratic enthusiasm, depressed Republican turnout, and persuasion of 2016 third-party voters could give Democrats a solid edge heading into 2018.

Already, these factors have helped Democrats do relatively well in special elections for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District and Georgia’s 6th Congressional district. Trump’s poll numbers have declined more since these special elections, potentially due to the extremely unpopular American Health Care Act and the Comey scandal.

Gianforte’s Assault of a Journalist

The Montana race was rocked last night by eleventh hour news of Gianforte’s assault of a journalist. While over 65% of the vote may have already been cast via mail, the significant Election Day vote could impact the outcome of a close race. There are several ways Quist could benefit from this news. First, Republican voters may stay home rather than vote for a deeply flawed candidate. Second, Democratic voters could turn out in large numbers to send a message about Gianforte’s deplorable behavior. Third, persuadable voters (who are probably less likely to vote early) could turn against Gianforte at the last minute.

Handicapping the Race

While much attention is placed on who wins, this isn’t what really matters for special elections. One Congressman won’t make too much of a difference in a 438-member body, especially due to party politics. What political pundits are interested in is what this election tells us about the electoral landscape looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections. Are Democrats doing well enough to take back the House?

The simplest way to measure how well Democrats are doing is to compare the Republican-Democrat margin in this race to the Trump-Clinton margin last fall. For example, if Gianforte won by 5 points, that would represent a Republican underperformance of 15 points relative to Trump’s 20-point victory last November. This would generally be considered a good sign for Democrats.

Spinning the Race

Ironically, Gianforte’s eleventh hour scandal may help the Republican Party avoid questions about its electoral viability in the Trump era. Polls throughout the campaign have shown a surprisingly close race — a Quist win under normal circumstances would be a strong sign that Republicans are in trouble for 2018. However, if Gianforte loses now, Republicans will almost surely dismiss the loss as the result of a flawed candidate with a destabilizing last-minute scandal. This allows them to pretend as if everything’s going fine, even if Gianforte would have done poorly without the scandal.

Looking Ahead

Ultimately, questions about the effect of Gianforte’s assault will make it much harder to draw definitive conclusions about how Trump is affecting the political landscape. This certainly raises the stakes for the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional district next month.