WASHINGTON — Georgia’s special House election has gotten most of the attention, but some Republicans are quietly nervous that the race to fill an open seat in Montana has gotten too close for comfort ahead of Thursday’s vote in a contest that has taken on national overtones.
The anti-Trump resistance is fueling the campaign of a flawed Democratic challenger, bluegrass musician Rob Quist, helping him raise a whopping $5 million for the race even though deep-pocketed national Democrats have mostly kept their distance.
Republicans are still favored to hang onto the seat, but it’s become an expensive affair. GOP outside groups have poured millions into the state, outspending Democrats by a two-to-one margin on TV ads.
“Frankly, the fact that they’re having to spend millions and millions of dollars to hold these seats is astounding,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday, referencing Montana and Georgia.
Strategists in both parties say Trump’s dismal national standing isn’t the driving factor in the race — he remains fairly popular in the state — and argue Montana’s quirky nature and the major flaws of both candidates have shaped the contest.
But a surprisingly close race won’t ease Republicans’ growing nerves about the 2018 midterms — and if Democrats pull off a huge upset that could set off alarm bells in the GOP.
Trump won the state by a healthy 56%-35% and his approval rating is still above water in internal polls from both parties.
But talented Democrats have won in the state for years — they’ve held at least one Senate seat there for decades, and their Democratic governor just overcame Trump’s strong showing to win reelection last November — over the same deeply flawed Republican candidate that’s running for this seat, businessman Greg Gianforte.
Both parties’ candidates have embraced some national figures to boost their turnout. After running away from Trump last fall – which some Republicans say contributed to his loss – Gianforte has campaigned with Donald Trump, Jr., Vice President Pence, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who held the seat until his appointment in the Trump administration. Quist spent the weekend barnstorming the state with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
And while Quist has barely mentioned Trump, he’s run hard against the GOP’s unpopular plan to repeal Obamacare, a plan that Gianforte has hemmed and hawed about.
“He started way, way back and no one gave him a shot but I think he has a shot at it now,” Sanders told the Daily News. “I think there is growing discontent with Trump, with his healthcare proposal. Quist has been talking a whole lot about that and I suspect that’s pretty unpopular in Montana.”
Neither party is enamored with their candidate, but say the other side’s may be worse.
Republicans are still angry Gianforte blew an easily winnable race for governor last fall, and say the wealthy outsider is a bad fit for blue-collar, populist Montana. Democrats have reprised ads blasting him for trying to close off public access to a popular fishing spot on his property — a damning attack in a state where open access to public lands is considered a sacred right.
“The Republican is going to win. But it’s a close race, because Greg Gianforte is a clown. Period,” one national Republican involved in the race sniped. “The story of this race doesn’t have anything to do with Trump… It turns out that being from New Jersey isn’t an asset in Montana.”
But Democrats aren’t over the moon with Quist.
While the cowboy-hatted local icon couldn’t be more Montanan, his solidly progressive political views make him an imperfect fit for the state — and his rocky personal financial history has given Republicans plenty to work with for attack ads.
“We have a very weak candidate who had no idea what he was getting into and had never been tested,” said one national Democrat who’s been involved in the race. “The outsider candidate is a nice idea until you realize they have no idea what they’re doing … Quist’s personal financials are a mess.”
“I think Rob Quist is so liberal that he’s going to have a hard time winning that race. I think Greg’s going to win it,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a friend and former business partner of Gianforte’s, told the Daily News.
But Gianforte himself seems nervous — he said multiple times at a Tuesday campaign stop that “this race is closer than it should be,” according to reporters at the event.
Republican strategists say they’re worried that the race has tightened, while national Democrats say their polling shows the race has remained out of reach.
Republicans privately say Gianforte is going to win by fewer than 5 points, Democrats predict a double-digit loss. It’s unclear how much of that is expectations setting — or whether one side has bad polling in the race, a real possibility in a hard-to-poll state.
Still, some Democrats remain hopeful that their guy can pull off a major upset — one that would feed into Republicans’ nerves about the 2018 elections.
“Hopefully we’re going to win,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told The News. “I think he’s got a good chance.”