Montana’s special election is not a bellwether

Ground-and-pound specialist Greg Gianforte

Montana votes today in the special election to fill our only seat in the House of Representatives, and Greg Gianforte has given us a lot to think about. Last night, the Republican candidate attacked a reporter for the Guardian, throwing him to the ground and punching him in response to a question about the Republican health care plan. The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department has charged Gianforte with assault. Lee newspapers have rescinded their endorsement. Chris Cillizza has pronounced today’s vote a lose-lose situation for Republicans, whereas Chuck Todd calls it a lose-lose for Democrats. The takes are flying fast, and the first salvo has necessarily consisted of first ideas.

Speaking of first ideas, the logical way to put a national news peg on a story about Montana’s special election is to call it a referendum on Trump. I can think of more than one reason to resist that interpretation, though. When Gianforte ran for governor in November, he underperformed Trump by ten points, losing a state that the Republican at the top of his ticket won easily. Since then, he has restyled himself as a full-throated supporter of the Trump agenda. But even if Gianforte is now running on the president’s message, today’s election won’t necessarily tell us what Montanans think of it, because the Democratic candidate is deeply flawed.

Like Gianforte, Rob Quist has never held elected office. He is best known as the former singer in a country-rock group called the Mission Mountain Wood Band. His party selected him in the hope that his name recognition would give him an advantage in the short election, but they seem not to have run a credit check. Weeks into the campaign, it was revealed that the IRS had filed liens against the Quists for unpaid property taxes in 2011, and that they stiffed a Kalispell excavation contractor in 2001. His campaign, staffed by old hands in the state party, has done a poor job managing the news cycle and allowed opposition researches to pound a steady beat of such embarrassing revelations, including last week’s speculation that the Quists have avoided paying taxes on rental income.

Thus far, the Quist candidacy has been a referendum on Montana Democrats’ willingness to take what their party offers them. Given his dismal performance and Gianforte’s proven ability to contradict national trends, I don’t think you can call today’s vote a referendum on President Trump. Oh yeah—there’s also this thing where one of the candidates assaulted a reporter twelve hours before the polls opened.

I don’t know how much impact that will have. As Cillizza points out, around 70% of the expected total ballots have already been cast by mail. The remaining 30 percent is more than enough to swing the outcome—but who knows how many people who vote today, in person, are getting the news within 18 hours of publication? Given the exceeding strangeness of last night and the many uncontrolled variables in the campaign up to this point, I don’t think what happens today will tell us anything for certain about the national mood. It’s a nice peg, but let us be careful not to hang too much on it.

Guardian reporter posts audio of Gianforte “body slam” in Montana

Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte

Early Wednesday night, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs reported on Twitter that he had been “body slammed” by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who broke his glasses. It was one of those stories that asked more questions than it answered. Since then, Jacobs posted an audio recording of the incident, which sounds as though Gianforte erupted after being asked about the Republican health care plan but might also sound like a microphone being dropped into a sack. It’s unclear what happened or how it might effect tomorrow’s special election in Montana, but at press time it appears that Gianforte did get angry at a reporter, again. Jacobs account, partially confirmed by Buzzfeed reporter Alexis Levinson, holds that there was a local news crew in the room at the time, so it should be easy to corroborate. One hopes that there is video of Gianforte executing a grappling takedown on a reporter or footage that exonerates him from same. But one must never expect too much.

Correction retracts entire story on Quist’s draft registration

Democratic candidate Rob Quist, shortly before his guitar was repossessed

Tomorrow is the last day to vote in Montana’s special election. That means opposition researchers have only 24 hours to reveal one more embarrassing detail about Rob Quist’s personal life on the internet. For a second it looked like the photo finish would go to Brent Scher, who published an item in the Washington Free Beacon today claiming that the National Archives had no record of Quist registering for the Selective Service. But it turns out Scher filed the records request wrong. I quote his correction:

After publication of this article, the Washington Free Beacon obtained a copy of Rob Quist’s Selective Service System registration card, which was filed on January 10, 1966, five days after Quist’s 18th birthday. The registration card was indeed held at the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri, but could not be located for the below referenced records request because not enough information was initially supplied [emphasis added] to locate a record from Montana, where the registrations are organized by local board, according to an archive supervisor.

A-plus use of the passive voice in that second sentence, bro. It turns out no one could find Quist’s draft card because Sher asked for it wrong. This correction retracts the entire story. Instead of pulling the article, though, the Washington Free Beacon has left it up, but with the correction at the top saying none of it is true. It’s almost as though the Beacon were not a responsible news organization. It’s almost like it’s a propaganda site that was founded by a dark-money group and then spun off into a for-profit news venture.

Such outlets are everywhere, and they find no shortage of ethically flexible young people to write for them. You may remember Scher from this report that Quist had genital herpes, which cites his former urologist, whom the candidate sued for malpractice. Those are the kind of sweet moves you get when you use a PR flack instead of a reporter, but the downside is basic screwups like the one above. Kombat! Kids: Remember to tell the truth, or you won’t know if you’re becoming evil later.

Both candidates in Montana now running ads where they shoot TVs

Real Montanans Rob Quist and Greg Gianforte, with guns

In only three weeks, the voters of Montana will select a new congressman to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who vacated his seat as our sole representative in the US House to become Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior. It’s an exciting race. Democrat Rob Quist, at left above, is a locally famous folk singer who has never held public office. Republican Greg Gianforte, at right, is a millionaire tech entrepreneur who ran for governor in 2016 but has also never held public office. Both men were chosen by their parties, rather than by the usual primary process, to run in the special election. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real Montanans like me and, to a lesser extent, you. Why, just look at how they shoot guns!

That’s Greg Gianforte, wearing very clean work clothes and shooting a twelve-gauge at some office equipment in a field. Whoever did the voiceover for this one belongs in the Scary Ad Voice hall of fame. He says “national gun registry” in the scandalized tone most of us would reserve for “lobster in her vagina.” As you can see from this spot, candidate Gianforte loves guns and hates computers. That’s a sharp contrast with candidate Quist, who loves guns and hates Gianforte.

In the future, all political discourse will be conducted by shooting things that represent ideas. All candidates will be celebrities and tycoons with no record of public service, who are operated by their parties via remote control. What’s striking about these two ads is their near-total similarity. Creeping similarity has been a real problem in this contest between two supposedly different candidates for the House, which has amounted to a dance-off of affected pandering to a political consultant’s idea of Montana.

What if Montanans picked their leaders based on something other than who shoots a gun and lives on a ranch? What if the parties gave us to understand that our decisions could mean something besides “support Trump” or “stop Trump?” What if Montana politics were not, at this moment, captured entirely by cynics? These questions are academic. You can read all about them in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find an object that represents exemptions for pre-existing conditions on the individual health insurance market and prop it up on a fencepost. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links.

Montana special election heating up, melting down, freaking out

Cowboy folk singer and Montana congressional candidate Rob Quist

Now that Commander Ryan Zinke is busy applying his knowledge of tactical combat to our nation’s parks, Montana needs a new congressman. The parties met last month to select their nominees for the special election in May; Republicans chose Greg Gianforte—whom Montanans awarded second place in the race for governor last November—and Democrats chose Rob Quist. Quist has served on various arts boards and initiatives, but he is best known as a member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band. Like Gianforte, he has never held elected office or served in the military. Unlike Gianforte, he does not have a lot of money. But he is famous, and the leaders of the Montana Democratic Party hope his name recognition will put him over on May 25.

It is interesting to note that these two political outsiders did not seize their nominations by harnessing popular disgust with the political class. The political class selected them. As products of internal votes among delegates rather than primaries, Quist and Gianforte reflect not what the public wants so much as what party leaders think we want. Given what happened in the general, it seems we want outsiders, ideally entertainers. But are those outsiders so likely to resist the party line, or are they more likely to toe it? This question is the subject of an essay feature in this week’s Missoula Independent, which I wrote. Lick it up, baby. Lick it up.

I also wrote the column as usual. It’s about the special election, too, which is all anyone can talk about around here. As of this writing, a bill to allow voting by mail has passed the state senate but appears dead in the House Judiciary Committee. Democrats are talking about blasting it to the floor, but nothing has happened yet. Probably, Judiciary shouldn’t have SB 305 in the first place. The Adminstration Committee is supposed to get bills pertaining to ballots and elections, but House Speaker Austin “The Boss Man” Knudsen assigned it to the one where it was more likely to get killed.

The state GOP doesn’t like voting by mail, for reasons party chairman Jeff Essman laid out in an unusually frank email. Democratic candidates consistently outperform Republicans in early voting and mail ballots, because what Essman calls “low-propensity voters” lean left. That’s true. But it’s hardly a reason to overrule a senate majority and county commissioners across the state, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process of making it harder to vote. Essman is in a tough spot, here, because his only argument is manifestly anti-democratic. You can read of my sympathies for him in the usual place. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!