In Montana, an election shows a deepening partisan divide

Gianforte wins a House seat after millions of dollars in spending.


On May 25, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte won an open seat in the House of Representatives, left vacant by Ryan Zinke who was appointed Secretary of the Interior. Gianforte, a businessman who had previously run for governor, faced Democrat Rob Quist, who ran on a populist platform. The election was fueled by record-breaking numbers of out-of-state campaign donations. Even an assault on a reporter by the Republican candidate in lockstep with a historically unpopular president on the eve of the election did not push voters towards the Democratic candidate. 

Congressman Greg Gianforte stands atop Granite Peak in Montana.
Courtesy Greg for Montana

In the West this year, Montana, California and Utah have special elections for House seats. Both parties are watching to figure out what they’ll need to do to either seize more seats, or keep the ones they have during the midterm elections in 2018. In Montana, at least, the special election proved that Republicans and Democrats face splintered bases heading into midterms.

In the special election, Montana political parties nominated their candidates, offering a glimpse of party strategy. For Montana Republicans, there were echoes of the question facing the party nationally: What does it means to be a Republican? That question has been asked repeatedly since norm-defying Donald Trump was elected in 2016. “(The election) really was a referendum on Montana voting for Trump,” says Jerry Johnson, political science professor at Montana State University. Trump won Montana with a 20 percent margin. Gianforte won by a much slimmer margin, just 7 percent, with the help of $6.3 million in out-of-state money from Republican super PACs, as well as $1 million of his own. 

In Montana the election drove home a sense that the state’s hallowed middle ground is being lost. For years, out-of-state organizations have financially backed far-right conservatives who then polarize debates on health care and infrastructure in the state legislature. Gianforte himself has backed conservative causes and far-right candidates through the Gianforte Foundation and more abstractly through the Montana Family Foundation. In 2015, Gianforte threatened to sue the state if it passed a bill requiring financial disclosure in state legislature campaigns. His donations include white nationalist Taylor Rose’s failed bid at a state house seat, former state representative Joel Boniek, who was friendly with the Oath Keepers, as well as state Rep. Theresa Manzella, who vocally supported the Bundy family at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation. “I was unaware of some of his views and we supported him because we supported all (Republican) candidates in the last election,” Gianforte told the Missoulian after being questioned for his donations to Rose. Jayme Fraser, a political reporter in Montana, says that Gianforte and others like him have lead to a fractured sense of Republican identity in Montana with the fading numbers of moderate conservatives. “They were at a minimum frustrated with him because he had actively worked to unseat some of them,” Fraser says. “So there’s that tension within the state party about what it means to be Republican.”

Meanwhile, the voters in Montana have also changed. People with far-right ideologies have moved in to the state, Johnson says, settling in rural areas like Troy and Whitefish (see: white supremacist Richard Spencer) and bringing with them anti-government sentiments and eroding the middle ground. They value the seclusion Montana offers, as well as its whiteness. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Montana has the highest concentration of white nationalist groups in the West. That’s not to say all people moving to Montana from out of state hold those values, nor all those who voted for Gianforte. But that voting bloc helped elect Gianforte, Johnson says. “By the end of it, it was pretty clear it was a Trumpian election. He’s Montana’s version of Trump,” says Johnson. 

Gianforte shares Trump’s businessman image, lack of political experience, and dislike of the media. That’s in contrast to the more traditional Montana conservative, who values public lands, jobs, communities and minimal government. On the eve of the election, Gianforte allegedly assaulted reporter Ben Jacobs after Jacobs pressed the candidate on his support for the Republican healthcare bill. After allegedly choking and punching the reporter in front of witnesses, the Gianforte campaign released a statement countering what happened, and labeled the reporter a “liberal journalist.” Montana’s GOP chairman Jeff Essmann explained away the assault: “Frankly, I think he’s showed he’s a human, you know,” he told the Missoulian. “There’s certain voters that don’t respond to the engineer, businessman persona and do respond to somebody that’s human who, that when he’s pushed, he’s gonna react.” Montana state senator Jennifer Fielder, who leads the American Lands Council and has received donations from Gianforte, struck a combative tone. “Stand strong!” Fielder wrote on Facebook. “Guess Ben Jacobs got more than he bargained for when he decided to tangle with Greg Gianforte.” The Gallatin County Sherriff’s office charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault; his court date is set for June 7, the day after Congress returns from break.

The Republican headquarters in Havre, Montana, sits beside a grain elevator and boasts support for Republican candidates including Gianforte.

The election also offered a glimpse of where Democrats went wrong. The state party chose the cowboy hat-wearing, guitar-toting Quist of Kalispell, a folk singer with no political background. He toured rural Montana with a populist message similar to that espoused by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, who campaigned for Quist in May. His nomination divided the Democratic base in the state, since a number of progressives in the state wanted Amanda Curtis, a teacher and Montana state representative of Butte. At the Democrat nominating convention to choose a candidate, party members were split on whether a candidate with political experience would be a positive or negative aspect to their campaign, according to the Billings Gazette.

National Democrats were conspicuously absent from a race that saw intense spending on the Republican side. Quist seemed to duck the national Democrat brand, turning down a visit by Democrat National Committee chair Tom Perez. “There’s an extreme amount of money involved that we’ve never seen before,” says JoLynn Yenne of the Republican’s spending. Yenne, a retired teacher, campaigned for Quist. Still, Quist relied primarily on small-scale donations, not super PACs. Why didn’t national Democrats spend more? “If you want to buy a seat in Congress, Montana’s pretty cheap,” says Johnson. “It was very unfair to Quist to expect him to run a campaign of national importance alone.” Local Democrats are already looking ahead to 2018, when Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s lone Congressional Democrat, will be up for re-election. To win back the Montana voter, they’ll need to shift their focus to jobs and the middle class in addition to their social issues, Jeffrey Greene, political science professor at University of Montana, says.

In the end, roughly two-thirds of the votes were in when Gianforte assaulted the reporter, leaving the unanswerable question of how the election might have been different had it happened any time sooner. Still, if the election is a harbinger for the 2018 midterms, it doesn’t bode well for Democrats. Greene predicts the 2018 elections will be competitive, but will favor Republicans, much like the Montana special election. “I simply do not see a fast turnaround coming,” Greene says.

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

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