HELENA, Mont. (CN) – A hotly contested election to fill Montana’s congressional seat could be decided by a few points Thursday, and Republicans are making sure they don’t miss their free throws in the race that pits a wealthy New Jersey software entrepreneur against a singer-songwriter with no political experience.
President Donald Trump’s appointment of Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., as Interior Secretary in March left a vacancy for Montana’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Zinke’s seat will be filled in a special election Thursday by either Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist or Libertarian Mark Wicks.
The Republicans have gone all-in on this race, bringing Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. to Montana to help campaign for Gianforte, a wealthy software businessman who lives in Bozeman. The race is Quist’s first foray into politics, but the native Montanan has decades of name recognition from years of performing his folksy tunes around the state.
Gianforte has been in the political spotlight for a couple of years since entering the 2016 governor’s race, which he lost in November to Democrat incumbent Steve Bullock. Montana is decidedly Republican, but key races can go two ways, as the governor’s race showed. That same day, Montanans voted overwhelmingly for Trump, giving him a 20-point edge over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Gianforte was the only Republican in Montana to lose that day.
According to a Gravis Marketing poll conducted in April, Gianforte’s lead was 12 points heading into the election, which itself was packed with drama.
Pence visited Montana earlier this month to drum up support for Gianforte, and Trump Jr. made a brief swing through the state.
“With your help, with your support, President Trump and I are confident that Montana will make the right choice on May 25 when we send Greg Gianforte to Washington,” Pence said at a rally in Billings.
The biggest name that campaigned for Quist was Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who rallied crowds in Montana’s larger cities last weekend.
“The eyes of the country are on Montana,” Sanders said at the Missoula rally. “People are asking, can a rural state – a small population – can people come together to take on the big-money interests that divide this country? If you can do it, Montana, we can do it all across this entire country.”
Gianforte seemed to keep his distance from the Trump campaign until after the November election, then went all aboard the Trump train.
“I’m running because you need a strong voice back in Washington,” he told a rally in East Helena with Trump Jr. “I want to help Donald Trump drain the swamp back there.”
Last weekend, thousands of Sanders and Quist supporters attended rallies throughout Montana. According to the Quist campaign, more than 12,500 Montanans attended rallies in Missoula, Butte, Billings and Bozeman.
Quist is looking to pull an upset over Gianforte, a business founder who made millions selling RightNow Technologies to Oracle before launching his failed bid for governor.
Recent polls suggest Quist has cut Gianforte’s lead to single digits, giving Montana Democrats hope of capturing a seat they haven’t held in decades. Zinke defeated Democratic challenger Denise Juneau in November by a 50-31 margin to retain his House seat, before resigning in March to join the Trump administration.
Tides may be turning for Democrats.
“Nobody thought Quist had a chance to win,” Sanders said at a Montana rally. “Now, a week before the election, our Republican friends are getting nervous, and they should be nervous.”
The race may be more about taking the pulse of the American electorate than it is about power in the House, which has not had a Democrat from Montana since 1991.
“The enthusiasm around this race is palpable and the Montana Democratic Party sees a real opportunity to take back the seat that was last held by Pat Williams,” Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said. “The Democratic base and independent voters know what is at stake in this race and that is translating into record numbers of volunteers, new or re-established county central committees, unprecedented financial support to Rob’s campaign and an enthusiasm advantage heading into the final days.”
The two candidates could not be farther apart. Quist is liberal Democrat who advocates for public health care. He a musician who has kept a low profile and has never held public office.
“Montanans can’t afford to send Greg Gianforte to the U.S. House,” Quist said in a statement. “We need someone who will fight to ensure that affordable health care becomes a reality for all Montanans.”
Gianforte supports the Republicans’ recently passed health care bill, has stood against anti-discrimination laws in Bozeman and is seen by many as a Trump surrogate.
“This race is a clear choice between electing Rob Quist, who will be an independent voice for Montana, and a multimillionaire who cares more about his own wallet than working families,” Keenan said. “Out-of-state groups have spent millions of dollars on this race, and Gianforte himself has spent $7.5 million over the last two elections trying to buy his seat. But we believe that Montana voters will reject all of the money coming into the race.
“This race will go down to the wire, but we are confident that Rob will be Montana’s next congressman.”
Republicans hold a 241-194 edge over Democrats in the House, a congressional political body that is tasked, among other duties, with impeachment proceedings.
This is the third congressional election this year for open House seats, and Democrats have made surprising headway in districts that have been traditionally Republican-leaning. In April, Ron Estes won a close race over James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer, in a House race in Kansas.
Also in April, a Democrat running for his first elected office forced a run-off election in a Republican-leaning House district in Georgia. Jon Ossoff received 46.1 percent of the votes, just shy of the 50 percent needed to win the seat outright. He now faces Republican Karen Handel in a June election.
Now that the reality of a Trump presidency has settled in, Democrats could gain even more ground. The administration on Tuesday released its federal budget. The $4.1 trillion budget would cut taxes for the wealthy while also making deep cuts in social programs – something that Montana, with one of the lowest per-capita income rates in the nation and seven Indian reservations, deeply relies on.
Montana is one of the most dependent states on federal money, partly because about 50 percent of Montana is public land. Medicaid expansion was initially denied by the Legislature in 2013 before being expanded two years ago, making about 70,000 Montanans eligible for government-supported health insurance. In a state with around 1 million residents, health care services are strung far and wide in rural areas, so subsidies play an important role in their viability.
The Montana special election was initially planned to be done by mail-in ballots. Montana GOP leader Jeff Essmann pushed the Montana Legislature this winter to let counties decide if they wanted mail-in ballots instead of traditional polling places. Essmann wrote in a letter to fellow Republicans in February that mail-in ballots unfairly favor Democrats.
In Essmann’s self-titled “Emergency Chairman’s Report on the Long-term negative impact on the Montana Republican Party and Republican candidates due to Mail Ballot Elections,” Essmann said:
“All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public-employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.
“They may be well intended, but this bill could be the death of our effort to make Montana a reliably Republican state. It is my job to remind us all of the long-term strategic advantage that passage of this bill would provide to our Democrat opponents for control of our Legislature and our statewide elected positions.”
County election officials around Montana wanted to have a mail-in ballot election since it costs much less, and counties were not prepared to pay for the costs of the special election when Zinke resigned.
Montana Republican officials did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.