Three Big Questions (And Answers) About the Montana At-Large Race

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1. How much will the relentlessly negative coverage from the state’s largest paper shape the race?

I was inclined to discount the impact of the anti-Quist narrative that came out from the Billings Gazette early in the race, but was surprised today when a friend mentioned one of the stories as a reason she was sitting out the race. The online blowback to a series of questionable stories ranging from a spurious series about potential rental properties to a truly lame piece about hunting licenses was fierce, but I wonder if they didn’t resonate with some voters. It’s probably undeniable that a smear campaign run by a candidate is more effective when matched by ostensibly neutral press coverage, so it will be interesting to see if voters discredited the attacks, as some reporting seems to suggest.

2. Can a candidate win an election with an almost entirely negative message?

On a related point, it will be interesting to see whether Gianforte can win with an almost entirely negative campaign strategy. His entire approach this race has centered on three main goals:

  • to remind people that he is rich and therefore, somehow will be good at Congressing.
  • to hide from public events unless people have to pay to attend
  • to run ad after ad suggesting that Rob Quist is responsible for everything from the brief popularity of the band Hanson to the Great San Francisco earthquake.

At some level, the Gianforte approach makes sense—even Republicans are not enthusiastic about him, but during his bid for governor, he at least tried to humanize himself and present a positive, if flawed agenda for the state. It’s interesting to see that his approach this time has been almost exclusively focused on making some Bullock voters not show for Quist rather than expanding his own base.

He may win tonight, but I’d be astonished if he cracks 50%.

3. Did Greg Gianforte kill his real political ambition in this race?

It’s obvious to anyone (even those Republicans who ran against Gianforte for this race) that his ultimate ambition is not to be one of 435 members of the House. He wants to be in the governor’s chair. If he loses tonight, those dreams are almost certainly dead. As Reed College Professor of Political Science and County 7 ex-pat Chris Koski told me in an interview today:

You never say never in politics, but, if GG loses the race, it seems likely that his career in elected politics is over in the near term.  I could see him has head of the MT Republican Party or some other task for which he does not need to interact with the public. the MT Republican party has a deep bench of hopefuls that would love for Gianforte to step aside – of course, Gianforte’s money will continue to influence MT politics for years to come and that is truly unfortunate.  Not that Gianforte has influence, but that dark money has entered the state known for kicking aside the copper kings.

Even if Gianforte wins, Republicans will be very uneasy about running him for governor in 2020. After failing to win the seat in the Trump wave in 2016, running a weak race in 2017, and ending it with an assault charge, Republicans will almost certainly look for someone else to try to reclaim the Governor’s seat in the next election. Despite having an almost unlimited amount of personal wealth to spend on these races, Gianforte simply cannot connect with Montana voters. Win or lose tonight, Greg Gianforte will never be the governor of Montana.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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