GOP Candidate’s Body Slam Fails to Earn Democrats a Win in Montana

Despite an assault charge on the eve of the vote, Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist in Montana’s closely watched special Congressional election. Reporting from Montana, Michael Tracey of The Young Turks analyzes why Quist failed to reach voters

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. Results are in from Montana’s closely watched special congressional election. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has defeated Democrat Rob Quist. The race was seen as a critical test of Democrats ability to take districts that voted for President Trump in November. But national attention ballooned on the eve of the vote when something unprecedented happened. Gianforte body slammed a reporter who tried to ask him a question.

GREG GIANFORTE: I’m sick and tired of you guys.

BEN JACOBS: Jesus …

GREG GIANFORTE: The last guy that came in here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.

BEN JACOBS: Jesus.

GREG GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with The Guardian?

BEN JACOBS: Yes. You just broke my glasses.

GREG GIANFORTE: The last guy did the same damn thing.

BEN JACOBS: You just body slammed me and broke my glasses.

AARON MATE: In what had to be a first, the candidate was charged with assault just as voters went to the polls, but that still wasn’t enough to sink Gianforte’s chances. In a race that was closely watched as a sign of potential Republican weakness, are there actually lessons here for Democrats? Well, joining me from Montana is Michael Tracey, a correspondent for The Young Turks. He’s been in Montana covering this special election. Michael, welcome.

MICHAEL TRACEY: Good to be with you.

AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. Let me start by playing you off a little clip from Gianforte’s victory rally last night where he issued an apology.

GREG GIANFORTE: Last night I made a mistake, and I took an action that I can’t take back. I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did, and for that I’m sorry.

Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:01:47]. We love you [inaudible 00:01:48].

AARON MATE: That’s the winner, Gianforte, at his victory rally issuing an apology. Now Michael, even before the body slam happened, Democrats were feeling hopeful about this one as a possible district that they can flip in their favor, but even the candidate being charged with assault wasn’t enough to put them over the top. What’s your take on what happened here?

MICHAEL TRACEY: Well, traveling around the states, there was a really observable, what I would call “energy gap” between the two candidates. It seemed to be in Rob Quist, the democrat’s, favor when he went to these college towns like Bozeman or Missoula, even places like Billings and Helena. There’s a lot more visibility for the Rob Quist campaign than the Gianforte campaign, and it seemed like given that special elections are relatively low turnout, this was held on a Thursday night … On a Thursday, so people aren’t really familiar with the procedures that go into a special election, so it seemed like the enthusiasm that was militating in Quist’s favor might be enough to put him over the edge, but it is a Republican leaning state, and for whatever reason, Democrats were not able to turn out the vote in sufficient numbers.

Partially I think this might have to do with the fact that the energy was contained to these more urban areas of Montana. Obviously Montana is overwhelming rural, but there are some populated areas, and the support for Quist was really concentrated in those areas. This is a trend that see nationwide. I was speaking to some state Democrats at the Rob Quist’s concession event last night, and they were really quite angry that the national party hadn’t devoted sufficient resources to the race. Gianforte had an overwhelming financial advantage, he has a huge net worth, into the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions.

For Quist to stand a chance, given that Montana voters were inundated with Gianforte’s ads and pamphlets and other material, he really needed to have a comprehensive financial backing from the national party, and there were some resources given by the DCCC for example, but the people who I talked to at this event last night felt it was too little too late. And these were prominent Democrats in the state party who felt that Quist really was slighted. I think it’s just a combination of local factors and this reticence on the part of the national party to invest in races that are seen as more traditionally Republican and where rural voters are a key demographic.

In terms of the assault, one thing that struck me about Gianforte’s “apology” is when an ordinary person commits a criminal assault and receives a criminal summons, usually standing up on a podium and apologizing is not sufficient. They have to go through a very arduous legal process and maybe end up in jail before they can get that matter resolved, but because Gianforte is extremely wealthy and he has political connections throughout the state, and now he’s been elected to Congress, I mean, I think it would be reasonable for people to assume that he is going to be subject to a different set of legal scriptures than a typical person might.

Actually, I went out to one of the rural counties, South of Missoula yesterday, during voting and I didn’t come across a single person who felt that their vote would be changed as a result of the incident last night. Although, they had all universally heard of the incident. I think it really provoked consternation among the Washington D.C. media class, and justifiably so. I mean, it was definitely a thuggish and inexcusable act on the part of Gianforte, but because Republican voters are so overwhelmingly hostile toward the media, they either didn’t believe the story was accurate, or they felt that it was probably deserved, that the reporter was assaulted. It’s really just a confluence of factors in terms of why Democrats can’t really get any traction in these areas, or at least enough traction to win federal elections.

AARON MATE: Yeah. The issue of the political and media class touches on whether they’re doing a good enough job in addressing the actual issues that voters face. I’m wondering, do you think Quist took up that responsibility in a strong enough way? Obviously for Montana, the Medicaid expansion would be an obvious issue. Montana was part of the Medicaid expansion, and so rolling it back as Republicans want to do would be a huge issue for tens of thousands of people.

MICHAEL TRACEY: Well I mean, in fairness to Quist, he did make healthcare the centerpiece of his campaign. The two prongs of the campaign more or less were healthcare and this issue of public lands, which is obviously something that is held in high regard in the Mountain West. Gianforte’s record on privatization of public lands was something that Quist called out frequently. Interestingly, if you examine Gianforte’s rhetoric, he at least ostensibly is opposed to the privatization of public lands, and more or less, in terms of his rhetoric, agreed with Quist about the need to preserve those lands, but if you look at his record, if you look at his own private dealings, his rhetoric seemed to be contradictory.

That was a line that Quist definitely played up, and I think Montanans definitely do care about that, or at least a good portion do. Then, he did talk quite a bit about healthcare. I guess my question is how could he have broadened the message to be a little more structural or a little more systematic than what he did? I think partially what Quist might have done is identify Democrats as part of the problem rather than basically just taking up the mantle of the Democratic Party which is what he did. I mean, he campaigned with Jon Tester, the sitting Democratic Senator here. That definitely ingratiated himself with the establishment of the Democratic Party, who nominated him at a convention that was held a few months ago.

There was no primary for this particular race, but Quist, because he had to rely on the traditional Democratic vote, which had elected Steve Bullock, the governor here, last fall, and Jon Tester in 2012, he didn’t really incorporate any criticism of the Democratic Party into his campaign messaging.

AARON MATE: Yeah Michael, so on that point, not only did he not really criticize the National Democrats, but he also took up what has been their chief concern, Russia. I want to go into a clip from the debate in this election where Quist talks about Russia in terms of his opponent.

ROB QUIST: Well, I think that Mr. Gianforte needs to answer that question as to why he is betting on the economy of Russia, especially for companies that have been sanctioned by the US. He will bet on Russia, I’ll bet on Montana.

AARON MATE: So, “He will bet on Russia, I’ll bet on Montana.” In a race that was seen as having national implications, I wonder Michael, your thoughts on whether this race can teach Democrats anything about their incessant focus on Russia and President Trump?

MICHAEL TRACEY: Well, that clip is really interesting. I think it’s an example of National Democratic Party messaging seeping into local context, and if you look at the way that Quist delivered that line, I think it’s really difficult to believe that he has any sincerely felt aversion to Russian investments. Rather, it was just some oppo research that was force fed to him, and that he felt obligated to capitalize on. He wouldn’t have uttered that line if not for this overall climate that’s been cultivated by Democrats, fostering this suspicion about anything that is associated with Russia. I mean, this particular line really seemed to fall flat, if you talk to reporters in the state. Nobody really took it seriously. They thought it was actually pretty laughable.

The campaigns were sending opposition research along these lines to the state newspapers, and it didn’t get really any traction until The Guardian reported on it, and actually the reporter that wrote that story, Ben Jacobs, was the one that ended up getting choke slammed by Rob Gianforte. But I think that particular line didn’t resonate because it just felt canned. It felt like it was done more out of obligation than sincere principle, and I think the lesson that can be drawn from it is that when Democrats lapse into this Washington D.C. style rhetoric about Russia and want to utilize that issue to their political advantage, it doesn’t tend to work all that well.

Although, I do have to say, one of the things that I’ve been worrying about with regards to this Russia fixation, is that eventually, once this is in circulation for many months, which it now has been, it’s going to become instilled in the populous to some extent. I went and talked to some of the liberal activists based in Montana who were volunteering for [inaudible 00:12:07], and had been canvassing and phone banking and so forth. If you talk to them about the Russia issue and Quist’s choosing to bring that up during one of the debates, they do tend to think it was a legitimate issue. But the thing is, they’re a narrow sliver of the populous.

They’ve been sold the bill of goods by the national party and by liberal media figureheads, about the political salience of this Russia issue, and I guess they’re calculating that it actually has relevance on a local level, but I think that calculation is probably faulty, and people beyond the liberal activist constituency which constitutes a pretty small percentage of the population, they don’t really find this a major issue at all. Again, it just came across as very awkward and forced when Quist articulated it.

AARON MATE: Yeah Michael, listen, so you’ve been doing this kind of reporting across the country. You’ve been going to democratic town halls and you’ve seen constituents interact with their elected democratic representatives. What’s your sense of nationally, of where the electorate is versus where their representatives are when it comes to Russia and the usefulness of Democrats using this as their chief campaign agenda right now?

MICHAEL TRACEY: There are a couple layers to this. First, I think Democrats fixating on this issue so incessantly which they have has in a sense been politically advantageous in that it’s created a general atmosphere of scandal around Trump, even if the precise nature of the scandal often can’t be identified. Just the fact that Trump is associated with this aura of scandal and intrigue means that he’s going to lose some political cache and we see his approval ratings are quite low. It will probably effectively stymie his ability to pursue any kind of governing agenda, to the extent that he ever really had a governing agenda.

On the one hand, I think it actually is politically efficacious for Democrats to keep hammering on this issue, but on the other, in terms of how this is interpreted by the wider population, I think this is actually causing Democrats to get an even wider gulf between themselves and the segments of the population that they’re attempting to court, so they can actually attain electoral victory in places where they’ve been utterly wiped out and devastated. It’s a catch 22. You have liberal activists who show up to these town hall meetings or show up to volunteer for a Rob Quist type, who are preoccupied with this issue, but that sort of inhibits them from connecting with a wider electorate who see this as something that’s been ginned up and aren’t really quite sure what is even being alleged about the Trump/Russia collusion angle.

I think it’s a weird dichotomy because fixating on the issue serves one political goal for Democrats, but I think it inhibits their being able to pursue the more long term goal of actually establishing themselves as a viable electoral force in areas of the country in which people don’t wake up every morning worrying about Russia. That was on display I think this week in Montana.

AARON MATE: Well, Michael. That’s a very interesting dynamic and we’re certainly hoping to talk to you more as you continue to travel the country covering it. Michael Tracey, Correspondent for The Young Turks, who’s been in Montana covering the special election. Michael, thank you.

MICHAEL TRACEY: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.