On Thursday, Montana voters will elect a congressman to replace Ryan Zinke, who became President Donald Trump’s secretary of the Interior. Montana is a small state and it only has one representative in the House of Representatives.
Democratic musician Rob Quist faces Republican businessman Greg Gianforte. Both candidates have scandals, but Gianforte is slated to win in deep red Montana. Zinke, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump’s son Donald Jr. campaigned with Gianforte. Nevertheless, with the trumped-up scandals surrounding President Trump, Quist thinks he has a real chance.
Quist is pushing for a populist strategy of his own, having refused help from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, but accepted the support of Vermont Senator — and self-described socialist — Bernie Sanders. While campaigning for Quist, Sanders joked about committing a federal crime.
Here are five things to know about the race, including news that broke Wednesday night.
1. Who is going to win?
Gianforte seems to have a hefty lead in the polls. The most recent Gravis Marketing poll put the Republican 14 points ahead, 49 percent to 35 percent. Libertarian candidate (and farmer) Mark Wicks took a mere 8 percent, with 9 percent undecided. Exactly half (50 percent) approved of President Trump, with 42 percent disapproving and 8 percent undecided.
RealClearPolitics only considers the Gravis Marketing polls to be scientific enough for their purposes, and every Gravis poll showed Gianforte with a hefty lead — 13 points in late April, 8 points in early May, and 14 points on Monday.
Gianforte is still the favorite, but a recent scandal might seriously weaken his chances.
2. The Gianforte scandal.
No, the Gianforte scandal is not the fact that he has financial ties to Russian companies, but rather the way he treated a reporter on the trail.
On Wednesday night, the Republican candidate reportedly slammed a reporter for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, breaking his glasses and shouting, “Get the hell out of here.”
“He took me to the ground,” the reporter, Ben Jacobs, told the Guardian from the back of an ambulance. “This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics.” Jacobs said he was asking Gianforte a question when the candidate lashed out at him. He reported the incident to police, and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating.
There is an audio recording of the abortive interview, and the transcript is not pretty.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte said. “The last guy who came here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with the Guardian?”
“Yes! You just broke my glasses,” Jacobs replied.
“The last guy did the same damn thing,” Gianforte repeated.
“You just body slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs said.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte yelled back.
“The Guardian is deeply appalled by how our reporter, Ben Jacobs, was treated in the course of doing his job as a journalist while reporting on the Montana special election,” Guardian U.S. editor Lee Glendinning said in a statement. “We are committed to holding power to account and we stand by Ben Jacobs and our team of reporters for the questions they ask and the reporting that is produced. The incident has been referred to law enforcement and we have confidence that it will be handled appropriately.”
BuzzFeed News reporter Alex Levinson witnessed the event and shared her perspective on Twitter. “This happened behind a half closed door, so I didn’t see it all, but here’s what it looked like from the outside,” Levinson tweeted. “Ben walked into a room where a local tv crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte. All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air as he hit the floor. Heard very angry yelling (as did all the volunteers in the room) — sounded like Gianforte.”
Heard very angry yelling (as did all the volunteers in the room) – sounded like Gianforte
— Alexis Levinson (@alexis_levinson) May 24, 2017
Gianforte left the event hours before it was scheduled to end.
On Thursday morning, police reported Gianforte was given a citation for misdemeanor assault.
BREAKING: Montana GOP House candidate given citation for misdemeanor assault after incident with reporter, police say
— Fox News (@FoxNews) May 25, 2017
Democrats have demanded Gianforte drop out of the race.
3. The responses.
Both Gianforte’s campaign and Quist responded to the event.
“Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions,” Gianforte campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said in a statement. “Jacobs was asked to leave.”
“Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face,” Scanlon continued. “Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”
This response may not make Gianforte look good, but it does suggest that the journalist was the aggressor, and to some extent that might be true.
When asked about the event himself, Quist declined to meaningfully comment. “That’s not really for me to talk about, I think that’s more a matter for law enforcement, I guess,” he said in an interview outside a campaign event.
When asked point-blank, “What would a reported assault do to the race at this point?” Quist again repeated, “That’s not for me to judge.”
Quist responds (sort of) pic.twitter.com/cvnfAm0NyE
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) May 24, 2017
4. The Quist scandal.
Gianforte’s damaging scandal came in one night, Quist’s came over the course of 23 years.
Quist used a 1994 medical malpractice lawsuit to excuse more than $27,000 in debts and property taxes — which were not paid off until this year. He has also used his medical history as an issue in the campaign, to attack the Republican health care bill.
Quist sued surgeon Dr. Roch Boyer in 1994 over an allegedly botched gall bladder operation, which he alleged derailed his music career, harmed his health, and damaged his relationship with his family. But Dr. Boyer argued that Quist had entered the procedure with a history of marijuana usage, a pre-existing genital herpes condition, a previous positive test for tuberculosis, and a past meeting with a marriage counselor to discuss his “failing marriage.”
During the case, Dr. Boyer’s lawyers also challenged Quist’s claims that his music career was about to take off — two Nashville music executives planned to argue that Quist’s chances were “extremely unlikely.” Quist’s own Nashville executive was set to defend his talent, but this expert had never seen him perform solo.
The case was dismissed in 1996, after Dr. Boyer’s lawyers refused to exclude mention of Quist’s pre-existing conditions. But the Democratic candidate still referred to the case as late as last week on the stump! He said his family was unable to pay taxes and debts because of the operation.
The Washington Free Beacon’s Bret Scher questioned this, pointing out that even during the suit, the Quists disclosed they brought home $136,412 in income in 1994. The candidate’s wife, Bonni Quist, has sold over $15 million worth of property since 2006, which would have earned her about $500,000, according to standard commission rates. Finally, in 2007, the year the Quists refused to pay thousands of dollars in property taxes, the wife was the agent for three real estate deals each valued at nearly $1 million.
Quist’s music career has still not taken off, but he performed 50 times in 2007 and was paid a few thousand dollars per performance in recent years. He has also secured recurring gigs at a nudist resort in Idaho.
Quist’s use of a decades-old lawsuit to excuse not paying property taxes and other debts as late as March of this year is preposterous. Rather than giving him any credibility on the health care issue, this scandal removes all credibility whatsoever.
5. The most expensive campaign.
The Montana special election has broken records for campaign spending, with $17 million flowing into the race from the campaigns and outside groups, the Associated Press reported. This sum is remarkable given the brevity of the campaign — a mere 85 days. Montana’s last congressional race generated only $9 million in spending, during both the primary and the general election.
The Quist and Gianforte campaigns have raised at least $10 million combined, while outside groups have spent more than $7.1 million thus far. Quist’s campaign announced Tuesday that it had generated about $1 million in small donations over the past five days — a time period that overlapped the visit of Bernie Sanders.
Gianforte’s campaign said it has raised about $4.6 million, including a last-minute loan of $500,000 from Gianforte himself, who had previously lent his campaign $1 million.
Libertarian Mark Wicks has raised a pitiful total of $2,000, according to an FEC report.
While these new records might be alarming to some, they make sense given that there are very few elections going on in 2017. “There isn’t much competition for dollars right now,” Denise Roth Barber, the managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, told the AP. “With the exception of the race in Georgia, these candidates are not competing for money with other competitive races in other parts of the country. So there’s a lot of money to be given.”
Furthermore, national groups and media outlets are watching these special elections to gauge political headwinds. Outside groups have spent more than $6.3 million for Gianforte, according to FEC records. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have given a combined sum of more than $3.1 million.
Other outside groups like Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have supported Quist, with the DCCC spending about $800,000 to back the Democrat.
Despite Gianforte’s last-minute scandal, he is still likely to prevail. But Democrats look on this race as a key test of Trump’s popularity after four months in office. All eyes are on Montana.