GREAT FALLS, Mont. — In Montana’s upcoming special election, Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist are getting pounded on the airwaves and in the local papers. Democrats paint Gianforte as an out-of-touch plutocrat with financial ties to Russia and ISIS. Republicans frame Quist, a musician, as a tax-dodging pothead who’s skipped out on his debts and performed at a nudist resort.
Yet political pros from Kalispell to Washington, D.C. are amazed that so little of the mud seems to be sticking.
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Now some are wondering if it’s the new normal after a bitter 2016 presidential election campaign marked by an avalanche of attacks and sensational revelations against Donald Trump that once would have doomed candidates to defeat.
“The threshold for oppo is certainly higher and the shock value is at a different level given Trump,” said longtime Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas, a veteran of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, pointing to a new, hyper-charged political landscape constantly filled with Trump news.
Private GOP polling shows Thursday’s contest for Montana’s lone seat in the House of Representatives has tightened slightly in the home stretch. Gianforte confirmed as much on Tuesday, twice declaring to roughly 40 residents in a park here that, “This race is closer than it should be.”
Among other things, Gianforte was still dealing with political blowback from the health care reform bill — the New York Times reported that he had praised his party’s unpopular American Health Care Act in a private call with Washington lobbyists after refusing to take a public stance on it earlier in the day.
But that wasn’t all. He’s been the subject of reports asserting he has financial ties to Russian companies under sanction by the United States, and that he owns a stake in a Swiss cement company accused of making payments to ISIS.
Yet Gianforte remains the favorite, leading strategists to question what exactly it will take to break through in a noisy political ecosystem dominated by Trump, and whether the opposition research hits on him have just faded into background noise.
“There’s been so much money thrown at this race — it’s the most expensive race in Montana’s history and the shortest race in Montana’s history — [that] it’s reached a saturation point,” said Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who held the House seat from 2013 to 2015 and is close to Gianforte.
Local operatives on both sides say their internal polling numbers for Quist have also barely budged, despite reports of the Democrat’s rocky financial history — including tax liens — regular marijuana use and news that he was taking a salary from his campaign. (Public polling has been sparse for this race.)
“What moves a voter is not always going to align with what the national media is covering in a given day, so you need to adapt for that reality in the Trump era,” said Jessica Mackler, president of American Bridge, the main Democratic opposition research group. That means the onus is now on researchers to find new ways to distribute their material, she said, indicating that the circulation of packaged hits online might be more effective than trying to place them in a traditional press that’s so focused on Trump.
Some trace the phenomenon directly to the new president, on whom opponents on both sides of the aisle struggled to land a campaign-altering punch. It wasn’t that research had no effect on Trump by November 2016 — he entered office as the least popular president-elect ever, Mackler noted — but his opponents were so overwhelmed with the amount of material suddenly flooding the zone that they were unsuccessful in using it to create a single narrative against him that resonated with enough voters.
“If you think of a campaign as a ship sailing from Point A to Point B, the role of opposition research on either side is missiles that sink the ship by driving the hull underwater,” explained Colin Reed, the executive director of America Rising, the largest Republican opposition research firm.
“If you look at a guy like Donald Trump, he is someone who had decades worth of universal name ID. He was a reality star with a show, people knew who he was, he had lived and thrived in the busiest media market in the country. So he had a hull that could withstand attacks, because people felt like they knew him,” said Reed, whose group spent years going after Hillary Clinton and successfully driving her favorability rating down ahead of 2016.
But with Trump now in office after a scarring campaign, the political media environment is desensitized to what would previously be major surprises, said researchers on both sides, pointing to how little national attention has been paid to Quist and Gianforte’s headlines, considering their shock value and the national focus on their special election.
With the threshold for breakthrough oppo suddenly higher than ever, the parties are placing an extra premium on finding the kind of penetrating intel that might cut through the muddle. That’s why the research department was the only one deemed important enough to be left intact as the Democratic Party’s new chairman took over this year. It’s why the RNC’s research staff has ballooned to 10 researchers, and why Washington is now experiencing a boom in oppo, as outside groups staff up and Democrats search for the silver bullet that they hope will derail the Trump presidency.
“We’ve found that we need an even larger war room operation, and an even larger rapid response operation,” said Mike Reed, the Republican National Committee’s research director. “We need to always just be faster in responding. There’s a need for speed, to push back, to break through the cycle.”
In Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, Republicans believe oppo work on Democrat Jon Ossoff — like revealing that he doesn’t live in the district and that he’d done work for Al Jazeera — did have some impact, crediting it with helping to suppress his support enough to force a runoff vote in April. But that race is widely regarded as a toss-up now, in a district HHS Secretary Tom Price routinely won by 20 or more — suggesting that Ossoff is in fact vastly over-performing and relatively undamaged.
“For better or worse, campaigns have become another form of reality television where colorful aspects of a candidate’s biography may not be treated as a vice at all, but rather as proof of their authenticity,” said Brian Fallon, a senior Clinton aide in 2016. “In the aftermath of Trump’s election, it’s fair to wonder whether anything is disqualifying anymore.”