GOP on edge over Montana election

Republicans are sweating out the final day of Montana’s high-stakes special election for an open House seat after their candidate got into a physical altercation with a reporter covering the race.

Republican Greg Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault after being asked questions about the new Congressional Budget Office score for the House GOP healthcare bill. An audio recording of the incident indicates things got physical when reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian persisted in asking questions. 

It's unclear how the incident, which led several Montana newspapers to revoke their endorsements for the Republican, might alter the race.

Montana allows voters to mail in their ballots, and many votes have already been cast in the state.

Strategists from both parties say that private polling showed a tightening race leading up to the election, with Democrat Rob Quist within a few points of Gianforte in a state President Trump carried by 20 points.

Gianforte had been expected to eke out a win to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the House, but even Montana Republicans conceded that this race had become too close for comfort.

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“We are literally in a dog fight right now,” said a Montana Republican familiar with the race before the confrontation. “I think it is essentially a toss-up.

“It’s really tightening up. The nationalization of the race contributed to a lot of that.”

The election wasn’t expected to be this close. After nominating conventions in March, Gianforte, a millionaire tech entrepreneur, was seen as the clear front-runner who had name recognition with voters after an unsuccessful run for governor last November.

But Quist, a folk musician and political newcomer, saw an increase in momentum. Growing interest in the race prompted national Democrats to start investing last month.

Gianforte’s double-digit lead eroded to within single digits in polls over the last few weeks, as money from both campaigns and outside groups blanketed the state’s airwaves.

Now, Democrats are eager to claim their first federal special election victory of 2017 and prove that momentum and voter enthusiasm is on their side. After a close defeat in Kansas and the party’s failure to avert a runoff in Georgia, all eyes are on whether Democrats can finally pull off an upset, this time in Big Sky Country.

Democrats are trumpeting Tuesday’s New York state Senate special election, which saw a supporter of progressive favorite Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight MORE (I-Vt.) win a Trump district, as evidence of a shift in the political tides. The party hopes to convert that energy into a victory on Thursday, then use a Quist victory to energize Democrats and worry Republicans ahead of Georgia’s June 20 special election.

In the final week of the race, Quist barnstormed the state with Sanders in an effort to channel the populist rhetoric that won the senator the state’s Democratic presidential primary a year ago.

Like Sanders, Quist supports a single-payer healthcare system. He has also criticized trade deals, echoing both Sanders’s and Trump’s campaigns.

Quist’s campaign has also touted his total fundraising haul of $6 million, with $1 million raised in less than a week.

Montana Democrats say the enthusiasm they saw over the weekend during Sanders’s visit underscores why they believe Quist has a real shot on Thursday.

“What I’m seeing on the ground is the momentum shift,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. “The enthusiasm on the ground is beyond anything I’ve ever seen.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have also had their fair share of high-profile surrogates come to bat for Gianforte and countered Sanders’s visits with reinforcements from the White House.

While Trump, who is on his first foreign trip, couldn’t personally stump for him in Montana, the president recorded a robocall for Gianforte. And Vice President Pence and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE Jr. have attended a handful of campaign rallies alongside the Montana Republican, while Pence also recorded a robocall.

Gianforte’s alignment with the White House is a strategy that can help shore up his base and try to win back some of the voters who in 2016 split their tickets between Trump and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over Gianforte.

Gianforte’s fundraising lags behind his opponent’s, and his $4.6 million haul was fueled by $1.5 million of his own money. But the House GOP’s campaign committee and outside groups have easily compensated for that gap, vastly outspending Democrats.

The race’s tightening is apparent on both sides, but Republicans looking at private polling remained hopeful that Gianforte can pull off a win.

“We’re still nervous, but we feel like we’ll probably edge it out,” the Montana Republican said. “It’ll be closer than it should be.”

GOP nerves were frayed even more by the extraordinary moments the night before the election, as the story of the assault charge against Gianforte blew up in the news.

Over the past few months, the candidates have clashed regularly, often on gun rights. But both candidates have their own set of weaknesses that have also defined the race.

Quist has been haunted by his past history of financial troubles, including unpaid debts and property taxes. Republicans have used the financial problems in attack ads, while Quist has countered that his checkbook issues mean he can relate to average Montanans.

Meanwhile, Gianforte’s muddled stance on the GOP’s bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare has made for Democratic attack fodder. Gianforte initially publicly distanced himself from the bill, only to tout its “national significance” in a call to Washington lobbyists that was leaked to the media.

Gianforte’s campaign sought to clarify the conflicting remarks, saying that he’s “thankful” the repeal process has begun.

Many of the same issues that dogged Gianforte’s 2016 gubernatorial campaign have also re-emerged. Democrats are again capitalizing on Gianforte’s New Jersey roots, though he has lived in Montana for more than two decades. And they highlighted a 2009 lawsuit Gianforte filed against the state in an attempt to restrict access to a public stream running near his property — a flap that led to Quist using the stream as a backdrop for one ad.

Like most races, Montana’s special election will come down to turnout, especially of each party’s base. And that turnout had been expected to be relatively low, despite all the attention on the race, with the election falling on the Thursday before Memorial Day and most universities already out for summer.

As of Tuesday night, 70 percent of requested absentee ballots have been returned, but it’s hard to predict which party that will ultimately benefit.

While a Quist win is within the realm of possibility, Democrats recognize the difficulty of flipping a seat in a deep red state. But they believe the closeness of races in both Montana and Georgia can provide a window into what’s ahead in the 2018 midterms.

“If you win [Montana], that’s an earthquake,” a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aide told The Hill. “That sends a message to Republicans that they are in deep trouble.

“I think you’re going to get some good indicators from both those races on the intensity level on both sides. Is that a narrative in Washington, or is that real?”

Read more from The Hill: 

5 things to watch in Montana's special election