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Rob Quist waves to the crowd after the conclusion of Bernie Sanders' Missoula speech.

Thursday’s special House election in Montana offers an early and important test for the Democratic Party: Can it win over districts and states that loved Donald Trump just last year?

Republicans watching this week’s congressional contest are nervous the answer is already a resounding “yes.”

The special election between Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte has become yet another referendum on the Republican president and his low approval numbers. Both parties consider it highly competitive, with the folk-singer Quist making a late charge that has Republicans worried that, at minimum, he’s made the race too close for comfort.

Like a similar contest next month in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a victory for Democrats would be widely interpreted as a stunning setback for the GOP.

But unlike the Georgia race, where Trump barely won in 2016, the Montana contest takes place in a state where Trump easily bested Hillary Clinton — by more than 20 points — during last year’s presidential election.

Success there — even if, as expected, Gianforte still wins — has big implications for Democrats, who are targeting dozens of House seats in districts where voters showed Trump overwhelming support. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week released an updated list of targets for the 2018 congressional contests with 20 additional targets in places where Trump won at least 50 percent of the vote.

“No district is off the table,” said Ben Ray Lujan, the DCCC chairman, at a press conference this week.

Lujan pointed out that House Democrats, who need to win 24 additional seats in 2018 to claim a majority, have a plethora of chances in places where Trump didn’t perform well.

Democrats already claim some success in one House seat that went heavily for Trump: In Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, Democratic nominee James Thompson lost by just seven points in April. Six months earlier, Trump had won there in a landslide.

Democratic strategists say the gains they’ve made in deep-red seats are a consequence mostly of the Trump’s unpopularity and the GOP’s health care bill, the American Health Care Act.

“Republicans across the country are probably going to find out that taking away health care and gutting programs that a lot of Trump voters rely on to pay for tax cuts for the rich is a calamitous electoral strategy,” said Chris Hayden, a Democratic strategist.

Republicans are well aware that Democrats would take a win — or even a close loss — in Montana as a sign that they can further expand their map into red districts. Montana’s special election will fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who is now interior secretary.

If Republicans also underperform in Montana, warned one conservative leader involved in the race, “it would encourage the Democrats that 2018 could indeed be a wave election.”

“For right now, Republicans absolutely should be concerned: They underperformed in the Kansas special election to replace the (Mike) Pompeo seat, they underperformed in the first round of voting in Georgia 6. No question about it, they definitely ought to be concerned,” the conservative said. “The question is, is the concern at a historic level, or is it simply par for the course for recent first-term, off-year elections?”

Certainly, this source and others argued, for all the warning signs, the Democrats do need to win either Montana or Georgia in order to credibly claim a coming wave election, as Republicans did in special elections like that of former Sen. Scott Brown’s surprise victory in Massachusetts in 2010, a harbinger of a Republican midterms sweep later that year.

“They’ve got to start winning some of these,” said the conservative. “If they win either one of those, it’s safe to say we could be headed for a 2010-style wipeout.”

But Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster, suggested that Montana results would be less instructive about the broader environment than those in Georgia next month. It’s a view shared by other Republican consultants as well. Montana went for Trump by double digits, Ayres said, but is also has a record of backing Democrats for other offices — including, notably, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. — while the suburban Atlanta district is generally more Republican across the board.

“Montana has some history of voting consistently Republican for president, but frequently elects Democrats for other statewide offices,” Ayres said. “Georgia 6 is not a district known for electing Democrats.”

His firm is involved in the Georgia race, and “it’s close,” he acknowledged. “Closer than it should be given the strength of the Republican candidate and the weakness of the Democrat.”

A Republican strategist who has worked on races in Montana expressed concerns about “an enthusiasm problem” for the GOP.

“No way it should be this close, especially after Trump ran away with the state,” the operative said. “Gianforte is underperforming Trump, underperforming the generic ballot. These are bad things.”

The source pointed to Montana as the latest in a slew of contests that are closer than expected for Republicans. Should Democrats win Montana, the Republican continued, “it helps them with recruitment and fundraising, they get better candidates out if they win.”

That in turn could help expand the Democratic map, this Republican conceded.

“Depending on where you are, a lot of people are going to make campaigns based on running against Trump. Depending on the demographics, it might be all they have to do,” the strategist said. “If they’re able to find decent candidates able to find one or two things to run on, they might be able to make some unexpected places competitive.”

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Another Republican strategist working on the 2018 midterms took a dim view of the Republican campaigns in both Georgia and Montana. The source noted that the GOP party committees are having no problem fundraising — a sign of energy — but questioned why that wasn’t manifesting in on-the-ground operations.

“It would be a mistake to assume all of the enthusiasm is on the left, I think there does exist enthusiasm on the right,” the strategist said. “Why is it they take advantage of that enthusiasm for the purpose of fundraising, but don’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for turning these people out to vote?”

Still, the strategist cautioned, there is plenty of time to right the ship, and improve the political environment, before the midterms.

“The environmentals are going to change so many times between now and 2018, to draw conclusions today from it would be a mistake,” the Republican said. “I would not go to any clients and encourage them to run or not to run based on what happens in Montana and Georgia. It’s going to be irrelevant in a couple of years. It could be radioactive in 2018, or it could be a decent environment.”

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©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): ZINKE

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Topics: t000002953,t000047686,t000047684,t000047683,t000047685,g000065858,g000362661,g000066164,g000065619

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