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Greg Gianforte Wins the Montana Special Election

The Republican nominee, charged with assaulting a reporter, defeated Democrat Rob Quist in a battle for the vacancy left by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Bobby Caina Calvan / AP

Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democratic nominee Rob Quist on Thursday night, in a closely watched special election.

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A Victory for Gianforte

Greg Gianforte will be Montana’s next at-large representative in the U.S. House.

The Republican candidate has built an insurmountable lead in the closely watched by-election, a race that Democrats hoped would be an upset built on anti-Trump resentment. But the GOP candidate held his own: Gianforte is currently carrying 50.3 percent of the vote with 72 percent of precincts reporting. The votes left to be counted are mostly from rural districts where Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate, is not expected to perform strongly.

The seat became vacant in January when former Representative Ryan Zinke resigned to join the Trump administration as secretary of the interior. Political watchers on both sides of the aisle viewed the race to choose his replacement as a potential indicator for whether President Trump’s increasingly tumultuous presidency would drag down the Republican ticket in next year’s midterms. Republicans can take heart that the favorable terrain and flood of resources—groups backing Gianforte outspent those backing Quist by a three-to-one margin—carried the day. Democrats, for their part, can take solace that Gianforte will likely fall short of Zinke’s margin seven months earlier by about five percentage points. Applying that trend nationwide wouldn’t give the Democrats control of the House, but it would shave off a few seats from Speaker Paul Ryan’s majority.

But the most enduring memory of the contest will be Gianforte’s choke slam of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of the election, which drew condemnation from across the political spectrum. As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum noted earlier this evening, there’s little chance he’ll be tossed out of Congress. Whether he’ll be able to escape the citation for misdemeanor assault will be decided by June 7 in the Gallatin County Justice Court. In the meantime, he’ll be headed to Capitol Hill where his new elected office awaits—along with a legion of congressional reporters who’ll continue to shove microphones in his face for at least the next two years.

The Urban-Rural Divide Grows Larger

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It’s likely over in Montana, according to our friend Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

There are a lot of votes left to be counted, but at this point, they seem unlikely to change the outcome.

One theme of the night’s results is an extension of the 2016 election—the American political landscape is increasingly divided between cities that are growing more deeply blue, and vast rural areas that are increasingly red. On that altered ground, Republicans may find states like Montana easier to defend, as they widen their margins in rural counties, like Gianforte did tonight. Quist, for his part, did best in more densely populated areas, but that’s not enough of the state for him to pull out a win.

The contested ground in 2018 is less likely to lie in congressional districts that are either predominately rural or urban than in those that lie between them—in suburbia. The white-collar voters there, long Republican stalwarts, are less-than-enamored with President Trump. That’s one reason why the race for the 6th CD in Georgia on June 20, between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel is expected to be tighter than tonight’s battle, and may also say more about the current direction of American politics.

The Rorschach Test of Special Elections

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Special elections are Roschach tests—what people make of the results tends to tell you more about the observer than the actual tallies. So far tonight, things look favorable for Gianforte—who, with some 240,000 votes in, has extended his lead out to six points.

If that holds, some Republicans will breathe sighs of relief. They may take this as a sign that President Trump’s low national approval ratings may not matter as much as they feared in local races, or that the AHCA’s unpopularity won’t necessarily be a millstone around their own necks in 2018. A Gianforte victory, despite last-minute assault charges, could be seen as evidence that even flawed candidates can prevail.

And many Democrats will be frustrated. This was a race that received little national attention, and relatively few outside resources, until its final weeks, and may add to discontent with the efforts of the House Majority PAC. It featured a well-known local candidate, and in his strident opposition to the AHCA, what many Democrats believe is a winning message. What had seemed like a longshot may now be, for them, a disappointment—even if it had always been a longshot.

But others in both parties will draw different lessons. Some will focus intently on the margin. If it’s narrower than 2016, is that a sign that the political landscape is tilting toward Democrats? Or evidence that Gianforte was a weaker candidate, and Quist a stronger one? If it’s wider than expected, does that reflect a shifting tide, or just the idiosyncrasies of Montana politics?

The clearest answer is to group together a series of special elections, looking at how their average margin compares to the most recent general election. But that won’t eliminate the temptation to over-interpret tonight’s results.

Montana's Conservative Politics Aren't Necessarily Like the Rest of the America's

For weeks, national media have been looking at Montana as a potential referendum on Trump and the Republican Party. No matter how this race turns out, it may not be a good predictor of how conservative- or Republican-leaning voters are feeling in the rest of America. The BuzzFeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen has spent a number of days reporting from Big Sky country, and as she argued on a recent episode of On the Media, typical culture-war issues—including abortion—don’t necessarily get a lot of play in the mountain west.

Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate, is a Christian, and the millionaire has donated to a number of conservative religious organizations, including Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Family Research Council. A 2016 AP report found that “most of the approximately $36 million the Gianforte family has donated through a private trust in the last decade has benefited Christian-based organizations.” Groups funded by the family have also drafted religious-freedom legislation and pushed for the state to adopt a traditional definition of marriage, according to the AP.

During a previous bid for the governorship, Gianforte minimized the role of his faith in his politics. “We’ve been incredibly blessed and we feel an obligation to give back, and that’s the reason we’ve given more than half our income away in the last 10 years,” he told the Gazette State Bureau in 2016. Running for office and giving money to charity “all stems from the same root of wanting to serve,” he added, “but they are two distinct, separate areas.”

A Case Study in the Drawbacks of Early Voting

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Early voting has become ever more popular in recent elections, as campaigns push their supporters to cast their ballots days or even weeks before Election Day.

But nothing in recent years has highlighted the drawback of early voting like Montana’s 11th-hour surprise.

The state allows early absentee voting either in person or by mail, and nearly 260,000 residents had returned ballots before Thursday. That represents more than half of all the votes that were cast in 2016 general election, and the percentage for a lower-turnout special election could be much higher. No matter how revolted (or impressed?) voters were by Greg Gianforte’s alleged assault on a reporter Wednesday night, they cannot change their ballots once they’ve already dropped them in the mail. That will limit the impact of the incident, and it could lead voters to rethink the practice in future elections.

Critics of early voting say it distorts campaigns and leaves citizens vulnerable to just this kind of last-minute development. Supporters counter that the added convenience is worth the risk, especially if it increases voter turnout overall. And, they argue, voters that cast their ballots early are likely to be more partisans, not swing or undecided voters who would wait until the last minute to choose their candidate. The pitfalls were more pronounced in the presidential primaries, when in a few states candidates dropped out after thousands of voters had already cast ballots for them.

That wasn’t the case in Montana, but it stands to reason there were at least a few voters who spent Thursday wishing they had their ballots back.

Falling Off of Bullock's Pace

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Some 40 minutes after the polls have closed, the formal tally is tight, with Gianforte and Quist trading leads with each update. Some 175,000 votes have now been tallied. But for Quist, who had hoped to amass a substantial lead in the early voting, that’s not actually good news.

Quist appeared to be running behind the tally set by the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, who narrowly defeated Gianforte in 2016. That’s the blueprint for how a Democrat can win in this red state, and measured against that standard Quist is, so far. falling short.

It's the Republicans' Race to Lose

Bobby Caina Calvan / AP

Setting aside last night’s election-eve drama, the dynamic of this race is similar to the other special elections for the House this spring: The Republicans have more to lose.

Democrats did not expect this to be a competitive campaign when President Trump nominated Montana’s lone congressman, Ryan Zinke, to be interior secretary in January. Quist’s victory in the Democratic nominating contest in March drew chuckles from national political operatives, who did not see the bluegrass musician as a serious challenger to Greg Gianforte, who had just run statewide in a losing campaign for governor. And even after Quist began piling up online donations from liberal supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, the national party resisted a major effort to win the seat.

Fearing an upset that would spur more talk of a Democratic wave next year, Republican political groups have outspent Democrats more than two-to-one, according to The New York Times. The defensive push resembles the GOP’s late bid to hold to the Kansas House seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo in April. The Republican candidate, Ron Estes, defeated a liberal Democrat by just seven points in a district Trump carried by 27. Under pressure from party activists, Democrats began spending on Quist’s behalf, but they have not come close to matching the millions they’ve poured into the Georgia district where Jon Ossoff is trying to capture the GOP seat formerly held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Before Gianforte’s assault charge, Republicans would have been happy with a victory of any margin. Now, they probably face a headache regardless. For Democrats, the Montana at-large seat is not the kind of district they will need to win in 2018 to have a chance at retaking the House. But after close calls in Kansas and Georgia, another defeat would be frustrating—especially against a candidate who could be headed for the county lock-up.

Quist Takes the Early Lead in Montana

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It’s all over but the counting in the Treasure State.

When the polls closed at 8 p.m. local time, the state board of elections promptly posted a tally of votes from 169 precincts, accounting for some 100,000 voters, many of them casting early ballots. The initial returns showed Quist with a narrow lead over Gianforte, 48 to 46 percent. That accords with what official in both parties were saying; Republicans, however, hope to make up that deficit with stronger support from election-day voters.

What Happens If Gianforte Prevails?

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What happens if, as expected, Greg Gianforte wins tonight?

The Republican is running in a state that Donald Trump won by 20 points, and Ryan Zinke by 16 points. Some 37 percent of registered voters returned early ballots, limiting the potential for news of Wednesday night’s alleged assault to sway the outcome. Despite Rob Quist running a strong race focused on health care, most analysts still think Gianforte has a narrow edge,

But what if the House Republican caucus would rather not welcome this controversial new member to its ranks? In 2010, Chris Good looked at how to kick a member out of Congress. In theory, the House could refuse to seat Gianforte; the Constitution says the House “shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” But the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Powell v. McCormack effectively foreclosed that possibility. Congress, the Court said, can’t impose qualifications on its members retroactively.

That leaves expulsion. Congress has thrown out 20 members in its history, most for siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War. In a couple instances, the House has thrown out members for being convicted of bribery; it’s also seen members reelected while serving their prison terms. And, in general, Good wrote, it’s chosen to defer to the will of the voters:

"Expulsion almost always requires breaking the law and being convicted of it," says Don Ritchie, the official U.S. Senate Historian. "Because of the democratic spirit, you don't deprive the voters of the person they chose, so they'd rather have the voters throw them out in the next election rather than do something in between, but if the person has been convicted and is going to jail it makes the institution look bad."

House Speaker Paul Ryan today sounded a similar theme today, as my colleague Clare Foran reported. “If he wins, he has been chosen by the people of Montana, who their congressman’s going to be. I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative,” he said.

One way or another, though, Gianforte will have to present himself at the Gallatin County Justice Court by June 7.