Fear and loathing in Montana

That race in Montana was over quickly enough that most of you probably caught wind of it before going to bed last night, even if you weren’t following Allahpundit’s coverage of it. But the other thing which was “over” before the tears of Rob Quist’s supporters had even begun to dry was any semblance of Democratic unity in what was supposed to be The Year of the Resistance. On the left, naysayers were quick to jump on the bandwagon and lambast the DNC for failing to do enough to win what many of them viewed (for some reason) as a very winnable race.



Over at the Huffington Post the accusations were more specific and they began before Gianforte had even won. Not enough money early on for Quist and little more than talk once it began to look like the race might be close.

“It seems clear that Gianforte’s massive edge in early funding allowed him to attack Quist’s character viciously before there were sufficient funds for Quist to respond to the vitriol,” Jeff Hauser, a longtime Democratic operative and director of the Revolving Door Project, told HuffPost. “If Quist should lose, the national Democrats who provided financial assistance after mail-in voting had already begun will have to question anew their initial reluctance to engage in the race in March and early April.”

Piling a bit more fuel on the fire, Chuck Todd was grilling the new DNC chair last night before the results even began coming in and his questions were along the same lines. Tom Perez didn’t have much to say in his own defense. Here’s the clip followed by a brief excerpt.

TODD: So you don’t acknowledge that you should have jumped in sooner? That if you guys come up 2 or 3 points short, you’re going to sit there and say, “Boy, imagine if you actually took this race as seriously as you took Georgia two months ago.”

PEREZ: First of all, the polls aren’t closed yet.

TODD: No you still may win, there’s no doubt.

PEREZ: I feel very good about this. And Chuck, the reality is, he should be up by 20 points. Because that’s how things have happened in the past the in Montana.

TODD: Well, well wait a minute. The state has elected a Democratic senator. Not that long ago, the state had two Democratic senators. Jon Tester has been re-elected twice. It is not a shock that a Democrat is competitive. I was shocked, frankly, Mr. Chairman – and this is more maybe a question directed to the DCCC – I was shocked at the lack of interest in the national party in trying to engage in this race sooner.


So does Chuck Todd have this right? Is all of the kvetching over the DNC “not doing enough” valid criticism? Frankly, it’s not that much of a simple, black and white question. There’s an old saying out there from Sol Wachtler about how you could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. In Montana, Democrats will say, the GOP could nominate a ham sandwich and still win (even if the sandwich in question had choked out a reporter the night before). But recent history doesn’t support that idea.

As with every election we have to look at the turnout. There’s a few precincts reporting late, but as of this morning it looks like there were a total of 375K votes cast. That’s on the low end for Montana, but this was a special election in an odd numbered year so it’s not all that shocking. The political class around the country was focused on this race 100%, but obviously there were plenty of rank and file voters who have gotten on with their lives since November. The turnout in 2016 was 485K, more than 100K greater. And the general rule of thumb is that the lower the turnout, the greater the chance for oddball things to happen. Trump beat Hillary by more than twenty points, but Gianforte only won by six or seven.

Did the assault on the reporter have any effect? This was completely anecdotal, but Alexis Levinson of Buzzfeed couldn’t find anyone who had their mind changed by it.


But we still can’t say that Quist’s loss was a foregone conclusion. In 2006 Democrat Jon Tester won his Senate seat by roughly the same margin as last night’s race and with a turnout of just under 400K. (Roughly halfway between the two examples above and about average for a midterm.) In 2012, Tester won again with a five point spread and the turnout in that presidential election year was 485K, almost exactly the number who showed up in 2016. So clearly there are enough votes statewide to elect a Democrat in Montana… if you have the right Democrat. Hillary Clinton wasn’t that person and apparently neither was Rob Quist.

But with that close of a margin it might have turned out differently with a bit more work. With that in mind, the analysis at HuffPo is probably closer to the mark than anyone else. Elections at every level rely on a question of whether you can manage to define your opponent in the minds of the voters before they get a chance to define themselves. That’s what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012 on a vastly larger scale. Quist was a flawed candidate to be sure, but the RNC and several PACs were dumping cash into that race as soon as we knew who was running and they were hitting Quist early and often. By the time he got his shoes laced up it seems as if he’d already lost any chance at real momentum.

I think the currently disillusioned Democrats were counting so heavily on everyone “hating Trump” so much that they could essentially sleepwalk their way through this one. But no matter how bad the headlines have been for the President lately, Montana is still a state that backed him by a more than twenty point margin just seven months ago. So the Democrats lost to a guy who had been charged with misdemeanor assault the day before people went to the polls and they really have nobody to blame but themselves.


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