Everything you need to know about Montana's special election

A multi-millionaire tech executive faces off against a bluegrass songwriter.

May 22, 2017, 10:22 AM

— -- The road of high-stakes 2017 special elections is now traveling into the Mountain West, where on Thursday Republican multi-millionaire tech executive Greg Gianforte is slated to face off against Democratic populist singer-songwriter Rob Quist in Montana.

After the GOP survived a closer-than-expected battle in Kansas’s 4th district and kept Democrat Jon Ossoff below the 50 percent threshold in Georgia’s 6th district to force a runoff, Republicans are hoping to hold on to this seat for Montana's at-large U.S. House district.

The seat was vacated after President Trump tapped Rep. Ryan Zinke to be secretary of the interior. He was confirmed on March 1, and Governor Steve Bullock scheduled a special election for May 25. Republicans have held this seat for the last two decades and are favored to hold onto it this week, but Montana has been known to split their tickets: they have a sitting Democratic governor and U.S. senator.

But the election isn't ultimately about control of this single seat, one out of the 435 in the U.S. House; Republicans will maintain a significant majority in that chamber regardless of this race's outcome.

It's actually all about momentum: Democrats are hoping a surprise win will energize their base, boost their national fundraising numbers and invigorate activists hoping to tip the entire U.S. House blue during the 2018 midterm elections. Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping to hang onto yet another House seat and block the narrative that Trump's unpopularity might hurt down-ballot Republicans in 2018.

Here's everything you need to know about Montana's special election.

Meet the candidates

Republican Greg Gianforte, 56, is a former technology and software company executive who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2016. He founded Brightwork Development in 1986 and sold the business eight years later. He retired at 33, according to Inc. Magazine.

“After realizing that he couldn’t spend the rest of his life fly-fishing,” according to Inc., the multi-millionaire founded another technology company based in Bozeman, called RightNow Technologies, which he sold in 2011.

Gianforte owns almost $250,000 of shares in Russian companies that have been sanctioned by the U.S. government, according to the Guardian. His assets range between $96 and $328 million, according to The Associated Press.

Opponents also say Gianforte is anti-public lands because of a dispute over a public stream access point. He has been supportive of major pieces of Trump’s agenda, like health care reform and his travel ban, as well as his firing of FBI Director James Comey. However, Gianforte does not support the recently-passed GOP health care plan, saying he needs a guarantee that the plan will protect people with pre-existing conditions and provide Americans who live in rural areas with easy access to health care.

Democrat Rob Quist, 69, is a bluegrass and country singer-songwriter, a former member of the Montana Arts council, and a small business owner. A Bernie Sanders-esque populist candidate who frequently performs at an Idaho nudist resort, Quist toured the country with the Mission Mountain Wood Band before moving to a horse ranch in rural northwest Montana.

Quist narrowly defeated former U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis at the party’s convention in March in four ballots. His past financials are under scrutiny, as he underreported his personal income by $57,000 on federal financial disclosures, according to the AP. He also defaulted on a loan, failed to pay a contractor he hired and had multiple delinquent tax payments, according to the AP.

Montana’s electoral history

A Republican hasn't held the U.S. House seat in Montana since 1997, but the state has a habit of electing Democrats in some statewide races. The Treasure State has a two-term Democratic governor, who won 50 percent to 46 percent over Gianforte in November. It also has a two-term Democratic U.S. senator. But former Rep. Ryan Zinke won his seat in November by 15 percentage points, and Trump won Montana by more than 20 points -- 56 percent to 35 percent.

Gaining national attention

The race has attracted some national attention -- though it’ has still failed to garner any comments from Trump. Vice President Mike Pence, however, held a rally in Billings for Gianforte on May 12, and rode horseback earlier in the day at a coal mine. Donald Trump Jr. also visited the state twice to campaign for Gianforte. Meanwhile, Sanders was in Missoula, Butte and Billings on May 20 and Bozeman on May 21 to campaign for Quist.

On the airwaves

Gianforte ran an ad in which he fires a gun at a computer monitor displaying graphics charging Quist with supporting a national gun registry. Meanwhile, an ad has Quist firing his gun at a television with a Gianforte ad on the screen, calling his opponent a “millionaire from New Jersey.”

Quist decried “nearly 300 millionaires in Congress” and said “there’s enough millionaires in Washington,” adding that the House shouldn’t be a “millionaire’s club.” He also said “Washington’s out of tune” -- a nod to his musical background. He also promises to represent all Montana, “not just the millionaires.”

Gianforte, meanwhile, embraced Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in this TV ad, adding that D.C. insiders have “rigged the system.” Gianforte has also said he will fight Washington, D.C.’s “war on the West” by supporting public lands and promising to “stop the terrible trade deals.”

It's all about the money

Gianforte’s campaign has raised $2.3 million and spent $2.5 million, according to the latest available campaign finance numbers from the Federal Election Commission. Gianforte has also loaned himself $1 million. Quist’s campaign, meanwhile, has raised $3.3 million and spent $2.6 million. Outside groups haven’t been as involved as other races: A Democratic group House Majority PAC is buying $25,000 of airtime -- a small, late investment from a national group, according to Politico. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is making a late investment of $200,000 in commercials, according to Politico.

The county to watch

If you’re only watching one county on Thursday night, keep your eyes on Lake County. It’s a small area with less than 30,000 people -- split between the small town of Polson, the Flathead Indian reservation and other rural areas -- but it’s been nearly perfect in predicting Montana's federal and gubernatorial statewide elections over the last two decades.

Lake County has matched both major party candidates' statewide result within 2 percentage points or less in 16 of the last 19 such statewide elections. It’s predicted the statewide margin within an average of 2.5 percentage points since 2004 -- and a razor-thin 1.2 points in the last five such statewide races.

The county did not match the statewide vote in the 2008 presidential race -- the only mismatch in federal or gubernatorial races since 1996 -- siding with former President Barack Obama by a 49-47 percent margin while the state voted for Sen. John McCain by a 50-47 percent margin.

Upcoming special elections to watch

After Montana’s race, here are the next special elections to watch:

California’s 34th U.S. House district special election -- June 6. Rep. Xavier Becerra resigned to become California Attorney General. Hillary Clinton won this Los Angeles district 84-11 percent in November. Democrats have held the seat since 1983.

Georgia’s 6th U.S. House district special election runoff -- June 20. Rep. Tom Price resigned to become Secretary of Health and Human Services. Trump won this northern Atlanta district by only 2 percentage points. Republicans have held this seat, for two decades under Newt Gingrich, since 1979.

South Carolina’s 5th U.S. House district special election -- June 20. Rep. Mick Mulvaney resigned to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Trump won this rural northern South Carolina district 56 percent to 35 percent. Mulvaney was the first GOP representative here since 1883.

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