Montana's U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte will be in the minority in the next Congress but doesn't think his state will be lesser for it.
By Wednesday evening, Gianforte had a 25,000-vote lead over Democrat Kathleen Williams and had won Montana's only House seat with 51 percent of the vote. Williams captured 46 percent of the vote, the high mark for Democratic performance in a race the party hasn't won since 1994. Libertarian Elinor Swanson garnered 3 percent of the vote.
Polling from the Associated Press showed Montana's House voters deeply divided on Donald Trump, border security and which party was to blame for inciting violence with political talk.
Gianforte returns to a Congress divided with Democrats controlling the House in 2019 for the first time since 2011. Republicans increased control of the U.S. Senate. The mission doesn't change for Gianforte, he said.
"I don't think my mission changes at all, it's to be a strong voice for Montana back there,” Gianforte said. “I think some of the tactics change. One of the successes we had this last session was advocating on behalf of individual Montanans directly with administrative agencies.
"That strategy still stays in place,” he said. “We had great results for UDAP over in Butte with the EPA, with Yellowstone Intake Project, with the BLM up in Toole County and we do one or two advocacy letters a week."
Democrats had at least a 27-seat advantage in the House with a few races still undecided Wednesday.
Gianforte said he has worked with Democrats on several bills previously. He cited Democrat Stacey Plaskett, the U.S. representative for Virgin Islands.
"It was interesting to me that the ranking member on the committee I share, the Interior, Energy and the Environment, her No. 1 issue in the Virgin Islands where she is the congresswoman is public lands issues and issues they have dealing with the national park," he said. "So we share a lot of common ground there."
Of the 735 bills the House sent to the Senate in the last year, many were bipartisan bills, he said.
“I worked with Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) on telecommuting, worked with Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) on ELDs," he said. "I have a history of working across the aisle. I'm going to have to work a little harder to find that common ground, but that's the job the people of Montana have apparently hired me for."
Gianforte speculated that impeaching President Donald Trump may be on the Democratic agenda, given the interest Democrats had in impeachment earlier this year.
"Those are sideshows, and we should focus on the business of the people," he said.
Williams emailed supporters shortly before noon to thank them. She had called Gainforte to congratulate him.
“We must remember that progress requires vigilance," Williams wrote. "We must still work to make sure Congress fixes health care; we must make sure they foster opportunity for all in the economy of the future; and we need to remain vigilant about protecting our public lands and outdoor heritage. We need to work hard, and maintain our integrity. I have not decided on the next chapter of my life, but I will be fighting along with you. We can pass down a better world to our children and grandchildren; I believe that with all my heart.”
Among Democratic candidates for Montana's at-large House seat, Williams' 46 percent of the vote tied Nancy Keenan's performance in 2000. Williams also raised more than $3 million in campaign donations, which was a general election record for a Democratic candidate in the Montana race. Williams was a road warrior, stopping in Montana communities previous candidates didn’t bother with. Democrats were enthusiastic about her campaign. She wasn’t a font of one-liners and political soundbites. An admitted policy nerd, Williams often unpacked her platform in great detail.
“I wonder in the age of Trump if she wasn’t a breath of fresh air, being a listener and fundamentally decent and working really hard with not a lot of pomp and circumstance,” said Rob Saldin, University of Montana political science professor. “My sense is that she worked hard, she got out and about, got to areas that Denise Juneau didn’t and was just much more of a presence around that state.”
Williams did well with women, capturing 52 percent of female voters, and did particularly well with female voters age 44 or younger, according to Associated Press VoteCast survey of 2,667 Montana voters polled between Oct. 31 and Election Day. The VoteCast margin of error was 2.4 percent. Men of that 44 and younger age group also preferred Williams to Gianforte. But the advantage wasn’t there for Williams with men and women voters older than 44.
Women in the older than 44 group were evenly split in their support of the candidates. Men older than 44 preferred Gianforte by 60 percent.
Education was important, with Williams picking up 71 percent support from female college graduates, while Gianforte did best with men who had a high school education or less or had received a bachelor’s degree. Women with similar education attainment were only somewhat more supportive of Williams.
Income mattered. People earning $49,999 or less strongly supported Williams. Gianforte did best with people earning at least $50,000 a year, more than half of whom said they supported him.
President Donald Trump had a large presence in Montana’s campaign season appearing in the state four times, while his son, Donald Trump Jr., as well as Vice President Mike Pence visited the state repeatedly to support Republican candidates. Gianforte campaigned on his re-election being important to fulfilling Trump’s agenda and possibly necessary to prevent House Democrats from impeaching Trump.
A majority of voters, 61 percent, told the Associated Press that Trump was a factor in who they supported for Montana’s only House seat. Williams picked up 97 percent of the protest vote against Trump. Gianforte picked up a similar percentage of Trump supporters.
The September debate around the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was also important to Montana House voters, 75 percent of whom said the partisan debate was very important to somewhat important to their vote. Within the 75 percent, voters were evenly split between Gianforte and Williams.
Building a U.S. southern border wall was at least somewhat to very important to 83 percent of Republican voters, but for Democrats, 90 percent strongly or somewhat opposed the border wall. Border security was a key part of Gianforte's messaging, in which he accused Williams of supporting "open borders."
Williams wrapped up her last weeks of the election with television ads talking about the need for civility in politics. The ads featured audio of Gianforte assaulting a reporter for The Guardian on the eve of the 2017 special election. Her message was that Montana was better than Gianforte's behavior.
But voters polled by VoteCast were split on who was to blame in U.S. politics when it came to promoting violence. The were 54 percent of voters who said the way Democrats talk of politics promotes acts of violence, although 19 percent of those voters said they voted for Williams.
Conversely, 50 percent of voters polled said the way Republicans talk about politics promotes acts of violence. Gianforte still received 16 percent support from those voters.