With then-Congressman Ryan Zinke tapped to join newly elected President Donald Trump’s cabinet, Montana's political parties selected their candidates for the special election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Coming from the Republican side was Bozeman businessman and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte. For the Democrats, it was political newcomer musician Rob Quist. And rounding out the race was Libertarian rancher Mark Wicks.
Gianforte’s high political profile from his run against Gov. Steve Bullock, along with his ability to largely self-finance his campaign and Montana’s history of electing Republicans to the House, put him as the initial favorite in the mind of most analysts.
But Quist’s fame as one of Montana’s most prolific musicians and member of the Mission Mountain Woodband promised to play in his favor. Also unknown was whether pushback from Trump’s election would generate additional votes for the Democrat.
The first hints of the tenor of the race came as Republican leadership worked against a Republican-sponsored bill in the Legislature that would have allowed an all-mail election. The legislation would have saved the state money following an expensive national election and saw majority support from county election administrators. But Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essman had come out hard against the bill, saying a mail election favored Democrats. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton testified that it would open Montana to accusations of fraud, and that a tight timeline made such an election difficult.
"We are not here to run the cheapest elections. We are here to run the best elections," Stapleton told lawmakers.
With the campaigns underway, Gianforte, a tech entrepreneur, touted his business acumen, support of the Second Amendment and support for mining and timber as cornerstones of his platform. He told voters that he believed natural resource extraction could coexist with environmental protections, but felt regulations unnecessarily hampered industry.
Attacks against Quist, including those from outside groups, focused on some controversial statements he had made about guns, past financial issues and progressive views.
For Quist, it was support for public lands and protecting health care that led his platform. As a Cutbank native, he touted his authenticity and understanding of the needs of Montanans while countering attacks of his views on guns and natural resource extraction and personal financial hardship.
Attacks against Gianforte focused on his public lands record, specifically a lawsuit he filed against the state over the location of an access easement. Quist ads also attacked Republicans’ promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont came to Montana to stump for Quist, and the president's son Donald Trump Jr. visited the state to campaign for Gianforte.
With relatively few national races happening at the time, media from the U.S. and beyond came to Montana to cover the election, and it became a fixture on national news outlets.
On the eve of the election, what began as Gianforte's campaign barbecue turned into one of the biggest events in Montana political history.
As Gianforte prepped for an interview with a Fox News crew, Ben Jacobs, a reporter from the international newspaper The Guardian, entered the room with a digital recorder running and began questioning the candidate about health care. Gianforte was heard yelling at the reporter as an altercation ensued, and eye witnesses identified Gianforte as the aggressor, reportedly slamming Jacobs to the ground and punching him.
Gianforte’s campaign team, and Gianforte himself, initially pinned Jacobs as the aggressor. But after claiming victory in the election, Gianforte later went on to apologize for the attack, plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and donate $50,000 to a nonprofit that protects journalists.
As Montana’s congressman, Gianforte has thrown his support behind tax reform and efforts to limit litigation in forest management. He also recently introduced a bill to prohibit mining in an area outside Yellowstone National Park.
Gianforte plans to run for re-election next year, and faces about a half dozen Democrats currently campaigning in the primary.