One Month Until Republicans’ Latest Round of Excuses

Special election for Montana seat moves from Solid Republican to Likely Republican

Democrat Rob Quist, right, is vying with Republican Greg Gianforte in the race for Montana’s at-large House seat. (Courtesy Greg for Montana, Rob Quist for Montana)
Democrat Rob Quist, right, is vying with Republican Greg Gianforte in the race for Montana’s at-large House seat. (Courtesy Greg for Montana, Rob Quist for Montana)
Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:15am

When it comes to special election results, Republicans always have an excuse, and their stumbles are never a national trend.

In Kansas, Republicans turned a 27-point victory for Donald Trump in 2016 into a recent 7-point special election victory for state Treasurer Ron Estes even though Democratic lawyer James Thompson had virtually no support from local or national Democrats.

Republicans blamed unpopular GOP Gov. Sam Brownback or Estes’ underwhelming campaign, but of course, it didn’t have anything to do with President Trump.

A week later in Georgia, a 30-year-old former Capitol Hill staffer forced Republicans to spend over $5 million dollars defending a suburban Atlanta seat that Mitt Romney carried by over 20 points in 2012. 

Republicans blamed the crowded (and distracted) field of 11 GOP candidates, outside spending tactics by typically GOP-friendly groups, or the infusion of money (upward of $10 million) by Democratic groups and donors from outside Georgia to explain why Democrat Jon Ossoff came within a couple of points of winning the seat outright in the April 18 open primary.

Once again, there was little reflection on how or why Ossoff was able to raise an incredible amount money in a short period of time. It certainly wasn’t because of a specific person in the Oval Office. Couldn’t be.

The Republican excuses go even further back to the beginning of the Trump administration. Those massive marches around the country the day after inauguration? Just angry Hillary Clinton voters. Those combative congressional town halls? Paid protestors.

A month from now, there will be another opportunity to identify the current political climate — and for Republicans to come up with an excuse.

On May 25, Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist face off in Montana’s at-large district in a special election to replace former GOP Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become secretary of the Interior. Republicans shouldn’t have trouble winning a seat that Trump won by more than 20 points over Clinton just six months ago. But the national party is spending over $1 million on television in addition to having a wealthy candidate who could spend whatever he wants in order to flood the Montana airwaves.

In the face of the recent special election results elsewhere, we’re changing our Inside Elections rating of the Montana race from Solid Republican to Likely Republican, in favor of the Democrats. 

I can already foresee the excuses if the race is closer than expected. Gianforte can’t connect with real voters (with evidence of his 2016 loss for governor as additional evidence). An election held on the Thursday of the Memorial Day weekend hurt GOP turnout and that dynamic won’t be replicated next year. Or Quist, the guitar player and vocalist for the Mission Mountain Wood Band, was a unique candidate whose quirkiness can’t be replicated by Democratic candidates elsewhere next year.

But at some point, the collection of Republican underperformances in traditionally safe GOP territory can’t be ignored.

Special elections often have special circumstances that cloud their ability to project future races. But Republicans are fooling themselves if they think Trump is not creating an environment that is boosting Democratic prospects.

Let’s face it, if Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich were president, it’s hard to believe Democratic enthusiasm would be this high. While each race has unique circumstances, there is a common thread through the Democratic enthusiasm: President Trump.

Time will tell whether Democrats can sustain and harness the energy and if Republicans will stick with their president and his party. But at some point, Republicans will realize that laboring over races in Kansas and Georgia and Montana is not business as usual.