Five takeaways from the Montana special election

Republicans across the country breathed a sigh of relief late Thursday night as Montana Republican Greg Gianforte won a special election for the state’s sole House seat.

The Montana special election earned its high profile early thanks to polls that showed Democrat Rob Quist gaining on Gianforte in a deep-red state. Gianforte’s surprising physical attack on a report earned him an assault charge and also brought more national attention.

With those heightened stakes, Democrats again failed to score a special election victory, though the competitive race suggested that Democrats’ enthusiasm in the era of President Trump is real.

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Here are five takeaways from the House special election:

Gianforte’s attack on a reporter made little difference

While most candidates spend the night before an election reviewing election strategy and energizing supporters, Gianforte spent the final hours of the special election in a different way: by physically attacking a reporter from The Guardian who had asked him questions, then facing prosecution for his violence.

Despite his assault charge and denunciations from fellow Republicans, Gianforte didn’t lose at the ballot box.

The fallout from the attack may have been reduced by the overwhelming amount of early votes cast before Gianforte’s attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. More than 260,000 Montanans voted early, with their votes amounting to almost 70 percent of the total votes cast ahead of the controversy.

And in interviews with reporters, few Election Day voters said Gianforte’s violent response had changed their minds.

Despite the win, Gianforte’s “body slam” attack on Jacobs, which he apologized for in his Thursday victory speech, puts him and Republican lawmakers in an awkward position.

The congressman-to-be still faces an assault charge — he’s slated to appear in court before June 7 and faces either a fine of up to $500 or, in the most drastic case, up to six months in jail.

Gianforte’s association with the Republican brand won’t help a party that’s already facing blowback for backing an unpopular healthcare plan and a president with record-low approval ratings. Top Republicans walked a fine line between backing Gianforte and not endorsing his violence Thursday, a line they’ll have to continue to straddle now that he’s a representative-elect.

Dems need stronger candidates to take back House

Gianforte wasn’t seen as a perfect candidate even before he attacked a reporter, but Quist had his own problems.

The Montana Democrat’s past history of unpaid debts and property taxes was a prime target for Republicans, who blanketed the airwaves with attacks on his financial troubles. This became a main storyline for the race, with a super PAC allied with the House Republican leadership attacking Quist on his financial issues immediately after his March nomination.

Looking to 2018, Democrats will need to recruit stronger candidates to flip 24 seats and retake the House majority.

The party already has a huge crop of candidates who have announced or are seriously considering campaigns, many of whom have backgrounds in the military or business. Those political newcomers could be a boon for Democrats since they won’t have a history of controversial votes to defend.

To retake the House, Democrats will likely have to back candidates in red and swing districts whose politics stand in opposition to the party on issues like gun control and abortion rights. But that could set off another division with party activists, who are leery of party leaders compromising on what they see as core issues.

House Democrats will need to tailor the candidates to the demographics of the district, striking a balance to make sure their contenders have wide appeal that reaches independents and even some disaffected Republicans while also not alienating the Democratic grassroots.

The Trump brand still works in red districts

Purple-state Republicans are openly worrying about how much Trump will deflate their support at the polls, especially as Democrats turn attacks on Trump into a part of their midterm strategy.

But in red states, associating with Trump is still a boon.

The president remains popular in states he overwhelmingly won in 2016 despite low national approval numbers. Gianforte’s success in Montana further proves that Trump can be part of the House GOP’s playbook.

The White House’s brand played a huge part of Gianforte’s bid, with the candidate appearing on the stump with Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hits reset button on messaging Trump Jr., Manafort still haven't agreed to testify before Senate panel House Dem launches effort to ban gov funds from going to Trump properties MORE Jr. and Vice President Pence. Both Pence and President Trump recorded robocalls on Gianforte’s behalf in the final week.

Sanders support can't guarantee a win

Trump’s support helped to close the deal for Gianforte, notching him a political victory over Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? OPINION | They told us to abandon ObamaCare — then came the resistance OPINION | Shailene Woodley: US should run on renewable energy by 2050 MORE (I-Vt.).

Sanders is one of the most sought-after faces among populist Democrats, with his support seen as a boon for any potential candidate because of his popularity with the party’s base and his fundraising chops. Sanders’s campaign swing through major Montana cities was seen as a huge get for Quist.

But Thursday night shows that Sanders is not a silver bullet for Democrats — they’ll need more than the Sanders brand to win back working-class whites in Western and Midwestern states.

And while Democrats hoped that aligning with Sanders could give candidates distance from the party establishment in states that don’t typically elect Democrats, Republicans aren’t respecting that distinction.

“Montanans said, ‘Bernie Sanders and [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] can’t call the shots here in Montana,’ ” Gianforte declared during his victory speech.

“Montanans said ‘We’re gonna drain the swamp.’ ”

Democrats can't count on the Republican healthcare bill to win races

Democrats got an early chance to test whether the House GOP’s healthcare bill is politically damaging for Republicans.

Gianforte was scrutinized for publicly distancing himself from the bill after it narrowly passed the House, only for the candidate to tout the bill on a call to Washington lobbyists that leaked to The New York Times.

Gianforte’s campaign later claimed that Gianforte was happy to see the ObamaCare repeal process begin and said he was waiting on the new score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Democrats sought to make this a last-minute campaign issue. In fact, Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs was precipitated by a question about a new CBO score of the bill.

The repeal bill could still be a defining issue in 2018. But Democrats might need to alter their messaging of how repealing ObamaCare will impact voters in states where the Democratic plan is fiercely unpopular.