National political handicappers like Roll Call and the Cook Report are rating Montana’s 2018 congressional race as likely to go Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte. But they’re wrong. Montanans seemed to shrug off Gianforte’s assault on a reporter the evening before last May’s special election, voting him into the open seat by a margin of nearly six percentage points even after the Fox News crew who witnessed the event debunked his campaign’s attempt to blame the reporter. But the event still hangs heavily over the freshman congressman and will combine with other dynamics of this year’s race in ways that will continue to vex him.
The political prognosticators are still hedging about whether a so-called “wave election” is building in the Democrats’ favor. After his on-script State of the Union address, President Trump finally saw a small uptick in his poll numbers last week and the Republican chances of holding the Congress also looked better in the most recent polls. But this will turn out to be a blip. Last week was, for the Republicans, like the moment Wile E. Coyote hangs in the air beyond the cliff edge, wind-milling frantically in the brief pause before plummeting. The Grand Old Party has decided there is no way to unyoke its fortunes from those of President Trump, and so they have joined his assault on the nation’s top law enforcement officials, the constitution, the rule of law and some fairly obvious truths about his campaign’s involvement with Russia. This is unlikely to work out well for them over the next ten months and will be especially hard on Gianforte, whose only claim to national prominence stems from his troubles with the law and the free press.
In Montana, where public polling for congressional races only happens once or twice in an election cycle, it’s often hard to get a clear picture of where these races stand. Candidates’ fundraising totals are often the best way to assess a race’s direction, and the early totals look bad for Gianforte. The incumbent congressman reports about $600,000 raised so far; a paltry amount for an incumbent that may indicate donors are reluctant to have their names appear in his finance reports. The Democrats competing in the primary, by contrast, have raised over a million dollars in total, unprecedented for a congressional primary in this state.
It is true that Gianforte’s personal fortune, which has always been his strongest asset as a candidate, can make up for any deficiencies in his fundraising. But the infamy he achieved by assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs means that his challenger will be able to raise money nationally with relative ease. It’s unlikely the Democrat will match the millions Gianforte can pour into his campaign, but a media market Montana’s size is quickly saturated by political spending, and the Democratic candidate will raise enough money to achieve functional parity in campaigning.
The two leading fundraisers in the Democratic primary, Billings attorney John Heenan and Missoula non-profit director Grant Kier, both have put their careers on hold, are campaigning full-time and look like candidates who can wage an effective general election fight. Heenan is the kind of progressive that excites the already-energized Democratic base, touting his work in consumer protection and his support for single-payer health care. Kier is more centrist, the kind of Democrat often favored by Montana general election voters, and stood out as a savvy political presence in the first candidate forum of the primary. Both seem to have already homed in on a different chink in Gianforte’s armor, Heenan with a populist message aimed at tweaking the wealthy former tech executive and Kier with a promise to hold four live town halls each year and a challenge to Gianforte, who has mostly avoided the public since his guilty plea, to do the same.
Even before the assault became his defining characteristic in the popular imagination, Gianforte was never a strong candidate. A Gianforte-owned company sued to block fishing access to the East Gallatin River near his property in 2009, a move that haunted him in his 2016 run for governor by making him look both elitist and opposed to the public land access Montanans cherish. He underperformed Donald Trump in that election by more than twenty points. On the campaign trail, he seems comfortable only with softball questions that can be met with his stock answer, “Good-paying jobs for hard-working Montanans.” He turns peevish and irritable when challenged and doesn’t seem comfortable in the public eye, especially when it looks closely at the motivations behind his move into politics.
In an interview during the special election that sent him to Congress, Montana Public Radio’s Sally Mauk asked Gianforte about his belief in Young Earth Creationism, which holds that the earth is only six thousand years old—a concept well outside the Christian mainstream. Like Peter in the garden at Gethsemane, the congressman seemed suddenly unable to recognize his faith, declaring that he didn’t know how old the earth was and pivoting quickly to an unrelated talking point.
Perhaps this reticence is just a legitimate desire for privacy, but there are hints of a relationship between his faith and his policy goals that Gianforte would rather not talk about. On many of the issues in which religion and politics intersect—abortion, gay marriage and school prayer—Gianforte has either dodged or outright refused to answer questions about his policy positions, though he has donated to many of the groups involved in these debates. He has taken a firm position in support of publicly funded vouchers that can be spent on private religious school tuition, an idea long criticized as an attempt to breach the separation of church and state. He’s also donated millions to Petra Academy, the Bozeman Christian school where he is the primary benefactor and a past board president.
The school shows further problems with the voucher approach because it does not accept students with disabilities; even the learning disabilities and behavioral problems that are common among public school students. Separation of church and state aside, it’s difficult to look at Petra Academy and see how a publicly-funded school voucher program can be prevented from turning public schools into under-funded holding pens for the students who need help the most.
While it’s unlikely that any Democratic candidate is going attack the Congressman’s faith, his general testiness and inability to skillfully address challenging questions will open an opportunity for his opponent. If he keeps his head down and avoids debates, press conferences, town halls and tough questions, the Democrat will say he’s hiding. There will be little downside to constantly challenging him to define his position on difficult questions. ln the months ahead, many of those questions will be about the role of the free press and whether our leaders should be subject to the rule of law. These are not questions Gianforte is well-positioned to answer, and if he dares to try he’ll be under a microscope that will magnify every flicker of irritation to confirm the perception of him as an intolerant hothead.
In short, it won’t be difficult for his challenger to turn campaigning into a lose-lose proposition for the Congressman. He’s likely to use a cautious strategy of safe formats and friendly media outlets, hoping Montana’s conservative tilt and President Trump’s popularity in the state will be enough to carry him through. But it’s too long a campaign to play only defense, and his previous bad choices have limited his options on offense.