The national Democratic Party heard the message. After James Thompson, the Democratic candidate in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District special election last month, came within single digits of the Republican candidate without a lick of help from the national party, the Bernie Sanders wing of the party made known its displeasure. Why was the national party only helping out a centrist candidate in a wealthy suburban district—Georgia’s 6th—while giving a Berniecrat candidate in a place like Kansas the cold shoulder?
The answer to that was pretty simple: The Kansas seat is in a far redder district where Donald Trump is popular. But Thompson’s Kansas showing may have convinced the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that investing in another long-shot special election, this time in Montana, would be worthwhile. It would earn the party goodwill from the Sanders wing. And the shockwave of a potential win by the Democratic candidate, Rob Quist, would send a crushing blow to the conservative agenda in Congress. The DCCC has now poured $600,000 into Quist’s quixotic bid to win Montana’s at-large district and replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. A Quist win would deliver Montana’s lone House seat to Democrats for the first time in two decades.
But what if Quist gets all the assistance he needs to supplement his own millions in fundraising, has the populist message so many activists want to hear, feeds off of the unpopularity of the Ryan agenda, and … still loses to Republican Greg Gianforte, a lackluster candidate, simply because it’s a bad district for Democrats?
There’s little public polling out there of what’s a difficult state to poll in the first place—especially in a special election where turnout can be such a wild card. (I’ve been told as well, and I’m not joking, that Montana is tricky to gauge because Montanans spend so much time outdoors this time of year and don’t answer the phone.)
It’s hard for reporters to interpret what they hear of private polling, too, because of the late-stage spin that may be coming from either side. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt tweeted on Monday that “fresh GOP polling” showed the race “down to 2-4 pts. TIGHT, with Gianforte expected to get less than 50%.” A Democratic source I spoke to on Monday, however, was careful not to raise expectations. It could be that Republicans want to keep their larger pool of voters motivated by playing up the possibility of a Democratic win, while Democrats want Republican voters to believe the GOP has it in the bag. The only thing that’s certain is that these Montanans are outdoors, having a blast, not answering their telephones. What must they be thinking? For whom will they vote?
Neither candidate is particularly strong. Gianforte, a magnificently rich businessman, lost to a Democrat in last year’s governor’s race, even as Donald Trump carried the state by 20 points. In other words, the Democratic portrayal of Gianforte as some rich guy trying to purchase a political office for himself has a recent track record of success. And Quist’s romanticized reputation as the down-to-earth cowboy-poet–folk singer who speaks the language of the working people, etc., only gets him so far when there’s a spotty history of failing to pay back loans and alleged fraud lawsuits in his background.
There have always been reasonable jitters among Democrats that this race, as with the one in Kansas, was never all that viable. Now the base, craving a blockbuster win, has its hopes up. Quist, and the national Democratic Party, will be praying that the Congressional Budget Office releases a truly abysmal analysis of the American Health Care Act on Wednesday that turns the race into a national referendum on Trumpcare on its final day.
If things don’t go the right way for Democrats, people are answering their phones in Georgia’s 6th District, where the most recent poll showed Democrat Jon Ossoff leading Republican Karen Handel by 7 points ahead of the June runoff. If Republicans manage to hold the Montana seat, they shouldn’t celebrate too hard, and Democrats shouldn’t allow themselves to drown the intraparty bickering they’re so fond of. This isn’t the last one.