By now you're aware that Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democrat Robert Quist in Montana's special Congressional election to replace President Trump's Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. As usual, both sides are spinning this outcome -- a six-point GOP win -- to fit their preferred partisan storylines; as usual, the real picture is more mixed. Some thoughts:
(1) Two increasingly popular coping mechanisms on the Left last night and today involve pretending that Montana is Alabama, and blaming "dark money." To wit (content warning):
Real talk: The fact that we're even watching #MTAL as a competitive race in the first place is shocking— Emily C. Singer (@CahnEmily) May 26, 2017
BREAKING: GOP has shit tons of dark money to spend on elections.— Armando (@armandodkos) May 26, 2017
It's true that Gianforte's margin was significantly smaller than Trump and Zinke's from last November, but it's not as if Montana is some right-wing stronghold. Yes, Republicans carry the state in presidential elections (although Obama barely lost there in 2008), but Big Sky country has a Democratic Governor (who beat Gianforte last year), and had two Democratic US Senators until Steve Daines won his seat in 2014. Sen. Jon Tester -- who joined Chuck Schumer's unprecedented filibuster against a pro-Second Amendment Supreme Court justice, after having voted to confirm two anti-gun justices -- is up for re-election next year. In other words, Montana's politics are more heterodox and complicated than the traditional red state/blue state model might suggest. A statewide race being decided by mid-single-digits is therefore in no way out of the ordinary or astonishing. Democrats fielded a weak, extreme candidate who got beaten soundly by an obviously flawed Republican nominee. As for the tiresome "money in politics!" argument, it's interesting how this panic often seems to rear its head when Republicans have the advantage:
Reacting to emerging excuse that D's are victims of $-in-politics after *vastly* outspending GOP in 3 straight POTUS elections like ????— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) May 26, 2017
(2) The infamous 'body-slam' incident does not appear to have moved the needle very much at all. Gianforte's violent outburst happened the night before the election, and even among day-of voters who heard it, precious few minds were changed. Even if the incident had penetrated more broadly, roughly 70 percent of the electorate had already cast ballots by election day. It's almost as if Democrats' fetishism of early voting (all efforts to rein in this practice a bit are demonized as "suppression") came back to bite them in this race. It turns out that significant developments can occur all the way up to the end of a campaign. Imagine that. Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols fleshed out this point in a New York Times op/ed this morning:
Would Montanans have voted for Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for the state’s lone House seat, if they knew he was the kind of person who body slams journalists? Too bad two-thirds of them will never get to make that call, thanks to early voting. Campaigns are a test of character. Voters in today’s special election and otherwise should not cast a ballot for a candidate until they see how that person passes this first test of fitness for office. That’s a test that gets increasingly challenging as Election Day approaches. If you doubt that, listen to the tape of Mr. Gianforte assaulting Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, in response to a question about the Republican health care bill. Two of the state’s newspapers — both of whom endorsed Mr. Gianforte — retracted their endorsements in the last 24 hours. Early voters in Montana didn’t have the same luxury — the state doesn’t allow early voters to change their minds.
One other note on this aspect of the race: Contempt for the media, no matter how simmering, is absolutely no excuse to dismiss, ridicule, or even endorse physical violence against journalists. Various justifications and minimizations of this disgusting display by some on the Right have been embarrassing. If conservatives want to mock hyper-sensitive college leftists as "safe space"-seeking "snowflakes," they cannot applaud or smirk when a Republican candidate gets triggered and loses his mind over a reporter's questioning. Winking at assault while cheering Donald Trump's "law and order" message is not a good look. In his victory speech, Gianforte rightfully apologized to the reporter he attacked. But his belated, forthright mea culpa also exposes his campaign's initial spin as a lie. As he prepares to take office, the newly-elected Congressman must work to address reasonable concerns about his temper and truthfulness.
(3) Turnout was quite strong, with more votes tallied in an unusual Thursday special election than were cast in Montana's regularly-scheduled 2010 or 2014 midterms. This view strikes me as mostly right, and a possible warning sign for Democrats who are convinced that the tide is turning:
Also beats back the notion of a depressed GOP base vs. an energized Democratic one. Both sides are deeply engaged right now. https://t.co/1cL6dYHBm1— Brian Rosenwald (@brianros1) May 26, 2017
Remember, prior to a pair of low-turnout, low-profile state legislative upsets on Tuesday, Democrats had gone 0-for-6 in state and federal efforts to flip seats since Trump was elected. They're now 2-for-9, with one Louisiana seat going the other way; a net gain of...one seat in the whole country thus far. On the other hand, they'll have another chance to make a statement in Georgia next month, where a new poll suggests that the Democrat has opened up a lead -- plus, data points indicating an intensity gap favoring the Left continue to emerge, even in these "moral victory" losses:
In #MTAL, Quist (D) received 94% of Clinton's vote total, while Gianforte (R) received 68% of Trump's. I think this is a problem for GOP.— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) May 26, 2017
This looks like a pattern to me... pic.twitter.com/wdGuPms3wL— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) May 26, 2017
As ever, Republicans are in no position to be smug or complacent, but let's face it: Their (victorious) candidates in the last two Congressional specials have been notably underwhelming at best. They both prevailed in spite of high-energy opposition on the other side, with Gianforte improving upon his 2016 gubernatorial performance by several points. It's impossible to know that the political environment will be like 17 months from now, but it seems to me that strong candidate recruitment and retainment could be a major key to mitigating the fallout of a Democrat-leaning enthusiasm disparity in the fall of 2018. Finally, don't forget that Democrats have unity issues of their own:
Unity Tour: DNC Gets Blamed for Montana Loss https://t.co/lN3X8A6y2L— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) May 26, 2017