It’s not good to start your tenure in Congress with a misdemeanor assault charge, but that’s where Republican Greg Gianforte finds himself. It also doesn’t mean he is immediately and automatically vulnerable in 2018.
On May 25, Gianforte won a special election to replace Republican Ryan Zinke (who vacated his seat to become secretary of the Interior) in a race that received some national attention but went viral after an altercation between the candidate and a reporter resulted in assault body-slamming allegations and formal charges. Gianforte pleaded guilty on June 12 and narrowly avoided a few days in jail with 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management counseling.
While taking on an incumbent member of Congress with legal problems looks enticing (particularly since two-thirds of special election voters cast their ballots early, before the incident), it won’t be an easy road for Democrats in Montana next year.
Rob Quist’s 44 percent in the recent special election was the best showing of any Democratic U.S. House candidate in Montana since 2000. And Donald Trump just trounced Hillary Clinton in the state by 21 points last fall.
Democrats are still determined to field a credible challenger to Gianforte. The early speculation is focused on state Reps. Amanda Curtis and Kelly McCarthy, according to a June 2 piece by Robert Yoon for Inside Elections. Both legislators lost the 2017 nomination to Quist in a contest that was decided by local party members instead of in a primary. Curtis was also the 2014 nominee for U.S. Senate against then-Rep. Steve Daines, who won the seat 58 percent to 40 percent.
Other previous House hopefuls mentioned as possible 2018 contenders are John Lewis, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus, who lost the seat to Republican Ryan Zinke in 2014, and Dan West, a former Capitol Hill staffer and Obama administration appointee at NASA, who also sought the 2017 nomination.
Democrats will need a solid candidate because the party can’t count on Gianforte’s assault charge overcoming the partisan lean of the state.
In April 2014, New York Republican Rep. Michael G. Grimm was indicted on 20 counts of fraud and conspiracy. He won re-election that fall, 55 percent to 42 percent, in the state’s 11th District, which President Barack Obama carried by 4 points in the previous election. Grimm resigned in January 2015 after his conviction.
Further back in August 2005, the FBI raided Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson’s home on suspicion of corruption. Agents found $90,000 in cash wrapped in aluminum foil in the Democrat’s freezer. But the congressman won re-election the following year, 57 percent to 43 percent over then-state Rep. Karen Carter, a fellow Democrat. It wasn’t until six months later that Jefferson was indicted on corruption charges. But he still won the Democratic renomination in 2008 before narrowly losing in the general election, 49.6 percent to 46.8 percent to Republican Ahn “Joseph” Cao.
There is still time for the dust to settle in Montana and for there to be more clarity about the national political climate, but Gianforte will start his 2018 re-election race with an advantage. The initial Inside Elections race rating in Montana’s at-large district is Leans Republican.