Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist yesterday in the special election for Montana’s at-large congressional seat to replace Ryan Zinke, who left Congress in March to become the Interior secretary. The results came just a day after the race was jolted following a confrontation between Gianforte and Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. On Wednesday, Jacobs asked Gianforte about his thoughts on the updated CBO score of the AHCA, which came out earlier that afternoon. Gianforte previously told reporters that he hadn’t made up his mind on the AHCA and wouldn’t until the report came out. When Jacobs asked Gianforte for his thoughts, the candidate deferred to his spokesman Shane Scanlon then allegedly “body slammed” the reporter to the ground, shouting “I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Following the encounter, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault by the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office.
The assault charge on Gianforte is not likely to have played a major part in the election results, given that roughly two-thirds of the vote in Montana is done through early-vote or vote-by-mail and had already been cast before the news broke. Instead, much of the contest had focused on the Republican healthcare bill, with Quist arguing that the AHCA includes devastating cuts for rural states like Montana. Gianforte had come under attack for his lack of transparency on his positions on the bill, after privately telling Washington lobbyists he was glad it passed, but publically saying he didn’t have a position. Both parties were hoping to use the results of the election as an indication of whether the AHCA would play a major role in the 2018 midterms—Democrats hopeful for an upset in a Republican-friendly district, while a Republican win would show that despite vocal opposition, a majority still support their policies over Democrats.
The unofficial result of the election shows Gianforte with 50.2% of the vote, Quist with 44.1%, and the Libertarian candidate with 5.7%. The election was closer than typical for a district that has not sent a Democrat to Washington in two decades. Zinke defeated his Democratic opponents by 15-point margins in his 2014 and 2016 elections. Zinke’s immediate predecessor Steve Daines, who is now Montana’s junior U.S. senator, defeated his Democratic opponent by a double-digit margin in his 2012 race, and before that Denny Rehberg regularly won elections at nearly 2-1 margins over his Democratic opponents. Despite the loss, Democrats are likely to point to the double-digit swing in the district as a warning to congressional Republicans who represent districts that are typically won with less than a 10-point margin that a similar double-digit swing in their districts could force them from office. Democrats are quick to point out that of the 238 seats Republicans hold, 114 of them lean more Democratic than the Montana at-large seat.
The next special election is scheduled for June 6 for California’s 34th Congressional District, previously represented by Democrat Xavier Becerra, who left to become the state’s attorney general. That district, representing downtown Los Angeles, is heavily Democratic with a Cook Partisan Voter Index score of D+35, and in which Hillary Clinton defeated President Trump 84%-11%. Democrats Jimmy Gomez and Robert Lee Ahn were the top-two vote getters in the April 4 jungle primary and will face each other in the special election.
Following that election, the next special election is the much anticipated contest for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s former congressional seat in Georgia. The jungle-primary in April resulted in Democrat Jon Ossoff claiming 48.1% of the vote, just under the 50% threshold for an outright win, while Republican Karen Handel took 19.8% of the vote running against more high-profile Republicans. The seat has not been held by a Democrat since Newt Gingrich’s defeat of the Democratic incumbent in 1978, but Democrats are hoping to pull off an upset victory, which continues to remain elusive in the special elections this year. All major prognosticators currently rate this as a pure toss-up.
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