Six months ago, Republican Greg Gianforte lost Montana’s gubernatorial election by nearly 4 points. Thursday night, he won statewide by about 6 points.
Congressional special elections are, well, special. The electorate is different, and so is the spending. Last fall, Gianforte was running against an incumbent.
But in this election, Gianforte essentially was the incumbent. At least that’s how the biggest outside spender in the race for Montana’s at-large House seat approached it.
Even before this contest took off, the super PAC endorsed by House GOP leadership knew it had work to do. The Congressional Leadership Fund invested $2.7 million into this race — more than any other outside group, from either party — and it did so early.
In other words, national Republicans’ concerns about Gianforte began well before he physically attacked a reporter and was cited for misdemeanor assault on the eve of the election.
“A flawed candidate”
CLF staff started by reviewing the attacks against Gianforte from the 2016 gubernatorial election, during which the Republican got pummeled for being a “New Jersey billionaire.”
“We concluded he was the definition of a flawed candidate,” the fund’s executive director Corry Bliss said Thursday before polls closed. “In this environment,” he added, “a C-minus candidate isn’t going to cut it.”
In CLF’s early internal polling, Gianforte had a 44 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable rating. Democratic nominee Rob Quist, as a first-time candidate, was more undefined. But he at least enjoyed right-side-up numbers — 19 percent favorable to 5 percent unfavorable.
Republicans saw what was happening in Georgia, where a 30-year-old first-time candidate was raising millions of dollars from Democrats around the country. If similar cash started flowing to Quist, they worried Quist could win.
What ensued was an aggressive effort to build up the Democrat’s negatives. And it started even before Quist was the nominee. CLF prepared two ads for the day after the Democratic nominating convention, with one accusing Democratic state Rep. Amanda Curtis of being an anarchist, just in case she secured the nod.
In the end, CLF didn’t need to air that ad, and instead started trying to tear down Quist before the GOP even had a nominee of its own.
The fund had sent researchers — both in-house staff and contractors from America Rising — to comb the state’s court houses looking for materials on Quist.
Throughout the race, CLF had two different hits for different audiences. To independents and so-called soft Republicans, they delivered character attacks. Those were the ads that slammed Quist for not paying his bills. The overall message? The folk musician couldn’t be trusted.
But to hard-core Republicans, CLF trotted out the old Republican playbook: tying the Democratic candidate to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. At the same time, the super PAC was courting Trump supporters online.
By May, CLF’s tracking surveys, conducted over three-day stretches, showed Quist underwater. For May 14-16, for example, Quist was at 41 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.
Gianforte wasn’t liked much either. He was at 46 favorable and 48 unfavorable. But Montana is, after all, a red state that Democratic House candidates haven’t won in more than 20 years.
And yet, CLF’s polling still showed it to be a close race.
In CLF’s mid-May tracking survey, Gianforte was ahead by just two points, 47 percent to 45 percent. A week earlier, the candidates had been tied at 45 percent each, with the Libertarian nominee at 5 percent and 4 percent undecided.
Democrats look ahead
Montana has a quirky political identity, with a Democratic governor and a split Senate delegation. But President Donald Trump won the state by 20 points last fall. Democrats made a go at this district last year, but former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who vacated this seat in March to serve as Interior secretary, won re-election last fall by 16 points.
So despite pressure from the liberal grass roots to spend more, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee only invested about half a million dollars in Montana. Even after its spending, the DCCC’s polling consistently showed Quist behind by double digits.
Democrats on Wednesday largely acknowledged that Gianforte’s attack on a reporter the night before the election was too late to make a difference for Quist, especially with so many early votes having already been cast.
But the DCCC made additional independent expenditures on Thursday, highlighting the audio recording of the assault. That might not be money wasted, if, as the DCCC suggested Thursday night, Democrats will seriously challenge Gianforte in next year’s midterms.
“We will be competing hard for this seat in 2018,” DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico said in an statement early Friday morning after the race had been called.
And liberals are quick to point out that, as in the special election in Kansas last month, the shift from Trump’s margin of victory to Gianforte’s on Thursday — not to mention the $6 million Quist raised — shows that momentum is on their side.
“Republicans should be worried that they’ve had to dump so many dollars in to try to defend a district that they shouldn’t have had to spend a penny in,” Luján said at a Tuesday press conference.
The Congressional Leadership Fund wasn’t the only GOP outside group to spend here. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent too.
Even before Gianforte won, CLF maintained that the spending, even on a flawed candidate, was worth it.
“A seat is a seat,” Bliss said. “We only have one thought: How do we protect and expand the majority? That’s really the only lens we use.”
For Republicans, winning in Montana was just as much about keeping donors and potential recruits around the country energized.
CLF is also a big spender in the much more competitive special election in Georgia, where the super PAC aired its first ad of the cycle in March. In both Montana and Georgia, the fund has had an early ground presence, too. And ahead of next year’s midterms, CLF has opened 12 field offices in districts across the country, with the goal of raising and spending $100 million on 2018 races.
But with an election in every House seat next year, CLF will pick and choose where it spends. (In one race, at least, the group already sent an early warning shot by closing an office in Iowa’s 3rd District after Rep. David Young came out against the original GOP health care bill.)
It’s too soon to say, Bliss said Thursday night, whether CLF will spend in Montana’s at-large district in 2018.