Where should watchers focus their early attention on the race?
The county whose results I will track most closely is Gallatin, both the scene of Greg Gianforte’s recent assault and his home county for the past twenty years. Even though Donald Trump ran even with Hillary Clinton in the fast-growing and prosperous county, Greg Gianforte was crushed there, losing 56-41 among the people in the state who know him best. If turnout in Gallatin is high and Gianforte doesn’t do better against Rob Quist than he did Steve Bullock here, it could be a long night for him.
Missoula County will also be a bellwether, as the Quist campaign has focused a great deal of energy there, including a 4,000 person rally with Bernie Sanders. There is some concern that, given the late date of the election, student vote numbers will be reduced. Missoula County is known for occasionally having high energy at events and less turnout Election Day. The question for the Quist campaign will be whether it can turn out Sanders supporters and disengage voters for a special election. By Thursday morning, 66% of absentee ballots in the county have been returned.
Counties close to and comprised of Indian reservations will also play an outsized role. Quist has devoted a lot of time on outreach there and counties like Glacier and Big Horn went big for Denise Juneau, the Democratic candidate in November. Quist people are engaged, planning to drive voters from small towns like Babb into their polling stations. During his last campaign, Gianforte said disparaging things about Montana’s Indian people, and the Quist campaign released a very effective ad using Gianforte’s own words against him.
There are other keys, obviously, like whether or not Quist can translate his personal popularity and campaign energy into narrowing the gap in rural counties, some of which went for Trump by 80% or more. Given Mr. Gianforte’s recent brush with the law, it will also be important to see how many people show up today. It’s hard to imagine late-deciding voters breaking for the guy who lost his mind on a reporter yesterday. I’ll also be keeping an eye on the conservative Flathead County, where Ryan Zinke doubled Denise Juneau’s vote total. A closer race there will show that Quist has closed the gap statewide.
The more voters who show up at polling stations today, the better for Quist.
Any other spots you all will be watching?