A Democrat's victory Tuesday night in a Pennsylvania congressional district that went for Trump by 20 points in 2016 raises questions about what that might portend for Montana’s congressional elections this fall.
Trump also carried Montana by 20 points in his presidential bid 16 months ago. While there are similarities between the Pennsylvania district and Montana, with a mix of urban and rural as well as coal country, it's difficult to say if the results could be an indicator for Montana.
“You can’t read too far or too little into the race, but it’s certainly a data point that has Democrats optimistic,” said Jeremy Johnson, an associate political science professor at Carroll College in Helena.
Tuesday night in Pennsylvania, Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican Rick Saccone by a margin of just a few hundred votes.
In Montana, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is running to keep the House seat he won in a special election last May. He’ll face one of the six Democrats in the primary, Grant Kier, Jared Pettinato, John Heenan, John Meyer, Kathleen Williams and Lynda Moss; as well as Libertarian Elinor Swanson.
In Pennsylvania, the Democrats ran a strong candidate and the Republicans had a weaker one, Johnson said. That means two things — it’s not a situation that can be applied to every House race across the country and in Montana, with a June 5 primary, it’s too early to tell what the candidate landscape will look like.
In his own special election last May, Gianforte beat Democrat Rob Quist with 50 percent of the vote to Quist's 44. It was the second of seven special elections in 2017 that political watchers monitored closely for any indications of a rising Democratic tide this year.
“It’s still too far out to know exactly whether the election will look a lot like Quist-Gianforte or will the Dems improve on that,” Johnson said. “Sometimes (races like Tuesday's can be) real harbingers and sometimes they’re really not.”
In Gianforte's 2017 election, groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent $380,000 to oppose the Republican. Other big spenders were the MoveOn.org PAC, spending $82,205; Planned Parenthood Action Fund, spending $51,230; and the Montana Democratic Party, spending $25,500.
Just this week, the League of Conservation Voters launched a $244,000 attack on Gianforte, the first of this cycle.
But that was a single special election with not much else happening at the time. When groups consider where to get the most bang for their buck this fall, they’ll take into account the fact that all 435 U.S. House seats are up for election while 35 Senate seats are on ballots nationally.
Roy Loewenstein, communications director for the Montana Democratic Party, said the party sees good news in Tuesday’s results.
“We find it encouraging,” Loewenstein said. “I think that looking at the spreads of all the special elections, even the one in Montana, the movement in the Democratic direction confirms what we’ve been feeling and seeing.”
Loewenstein said he’s hopeful that money will come in from the national level to give Democratic House candidates a boose.
“I know that it’s on one of the DCCC targeting lists,” Loewenstein said. “I think Greg Gianforte is unique because he has such a high national profile because of his assault on the eve of the election. I think he’s a pretty unique House freshman, he has very high name recognition across the country.”
Still, Democrats are well aware that the last Democrat elected to Montana’s House seat was Pat Williams in 1994.
“It’s always an uphill battle here in Montana for Democrats, but my hope would be everyone looks at this race and sees a vulnerable incumbent and somebody who is beatable,” Loewenstein said. “This is probably one of the best chances we’ve had to take back the House seat since Pat Williams left office. I think he (Gianforte) is a wounded incumbent and there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Loewenstein said it’d “be great to get support from the powers that be,” but for a Democrat to win in Montana, even if national money comes in big, it’s vital to focus on local issues, something Loewenstein said stood out to him about the Pennsylvania race.
“Conor Lamb ran a very localized race in general; it was one of the things that benefited him,” Loewenstein said. “It’s how we win this state, is by running on more localized issues that matter.”
Debra Lamm, chairwoman of the Montana GOP, said that she doesn’t read anything into the Pennsylvania election.
“Every election in every state is different,” Lamm said. “There’s a lot of different factors coming into play.”
Lamm echoed the line Republicans have used nationally when talking about the Pennsylvania race.
“What I found quite interesting about the Pennsylvania race is the fact we had a Democrat that ran as a conservative,” Lamm said.
Lamm ran as a moderate Democrat. He said he supports access to abortion but is personally pro-life. He also said he would not support a bid from Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker of the House if Democrats win a majority, and has opposed a ban on assault weapons.
Lamm said she’s seen strong fundraising in Montana and is fielding calls from new supporters every day. She hasn’t noted an enthusiasm gap her for Republicans.
“Everything we’ve seen is extremely positive,” Lamm said.
The Cook Political Report rates Gianforte’s race outcome as likely Republican. The same report, however, favors U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, in his re-election bid this year, projecting the outcome of that race as likely Democratic.
Tester, who has never won with 50 percent of the vote, is no stranger to races where outside money plays a large role. On Friday, Americans for Prosperity announced a six-figure ad campaign against Tester and other Democrats over their opposition to the Republican tax bill.
A recent poll conducted in Montana also provides insight into what voters might be thinking.
The Big Sky Poll, which used language that has been criticized by some political scientists, showed 22 percent of voters rank Gianforte's performance as "fair" and 37 percent as "poor." Only 7 percent ranked him as "excellent" and 23 percent as "good."
For Tester, 19 percent ranked him as "excellent," 27 percent as "good," 23 percent as "fair" and 25 percent as "poor." For Trump, only 20 percent ranked his performance as "excellent" and 41 percent as "poor."