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Republicans: Montana special election ‘closer than it should be’

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Republican Greg Gianforte’s closing motivational speech to voters ahead of Thursday’s special House election in Montana is the same thing GOP strategists are whispering in private: “This race is closer than it should be.”

It’s a recurring nightmare of a pattern for Republicans around the country, as traditional GOP strongholds prove more difficult and expensive for the party to hold than it ever anticipated when President Donald Trump plucked House members like Ryan Zinke, the former Montana Republican now running the Interior Department, for his Cabinet. Gianforte is still favored to keep the seat red, but a state Trump carried by 20 percentage points last year became a battleground in the past few months.

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Democrat Rob Quist, a folk singer and first-time candidate, has raised more than $ 6 million for his campaign, including $ 1 million in the past week alone as energized Democratic donors pour online cash into political causes this year. Quist hopes that enthusiasm also contributes to an outsize turnout — as it did in special elections in Kansas and Georgia earlier this year — for the oddly scheduled Thursday election, happening just before a holiday weekend.

“I remember talking to people when it first started who said this was a slam dunk, Gianforte’s it. And it’s not there anymore,” said Jim Larson, the Montana Democratic Party chairman. “It is a lot closer than people ever thought it would be.”

Gianforte, a technology executive, has led consistently in polls for the special election, but Quist has narrowed that lead to single digits in recent weeks, according to private surveys. “Gianforte has an edge, but it’s not going to be a slam dunk,” said one national GOP strategist.

Republicans have called on Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. to calm their nerves about turnout and prevent Democrats from having the only energized voting bloc in the special election. Both have rallied voters with Gianforte, and Pence recorded a get-out-the-vote robocall. Gianforte, who said little about Donald Trump when Gianforte ran for governor and lost in 2016, has cast himself as a willing and eager partner of the president this time around.

On Tuesday, surrounded by Trump stickers — and some Trump hat-wearing supporters — Gianforte said he was eager “to work with Donald Trump to drain the swamp and make America great again,” invoking two of the president’s campaign slogans. Pence’s robocall may give another boost to Republican turnout efforts.

But the environment has changed since Trump’s presidential win last fall. One senior Republican strategist warned that, based on the party’s performance in special elections so far, if Republicans “cannot come up with better candidates and better campaigns, this cycle is going to be even worse than anybody ever thought it could be.”

“The fact that we’re talking about Montana — a super red seat — is amazing,” said John Lapp, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 cycle. “It’s also amazing how much money Republicans have to pour into these seats to defend them. It’s still a steep climb in Montana, but we know that the reaction there means that there’s a tremendous amount of Democratic energy across the country, a tremendous amount of fundraising that will then feed into races that are much fairer fights.”

Democrats hope the passage of House Republicans’ health care bill just three weeks before the election will put the wind at Quist’s back. It has been the subject of Quist’s closing TV ads, and he has called the plan “devastating” to Montana.

GOP outside groups have ensured that Republicans have a spending advantage, though, airing more than $ 7 million worth of TV ads, versus about $ 3 million from Democrats. House Majority PAC, Democrats’ main House outside group, on Tuesday added a last-minute $ 125,000 TV ad buy to the race, on top of $ 25,000 announced last week.

But those ads may have reached a point of diminishing returns in a state that prefers retail politics, said Matt Rosendale, the Republican state auditor.

“The airwaves are saturated, and when people see political commercials come on, they completely block it out. I think there’s a lot of money wasted on it,” Rosendale said. “It’s a necessity in Montana to meet people. You have to be able to go out and meet with them, look them in the eye and answer difficult questions face-to-face.”

Operatives in both parties privately grumble about the quality of their candidates, with each arguing their paths to victory might be clearer with a standard-bearer carrying a little less baggage.

Mike Pence is pictured.

Republicans acknowledge that Gianforte has flaws Democrats exploited mercilessly in last year’s gubernatorial race, likely cementing negative feelings about him from some voters. Gianforte is dogged by reports that he sued Montana to block access to a stream in front of his ranch, kicking up a public lands dispute that hits home with Montana voters and has “probably followed him into this House race,” said Jeff Essman, the state’s GOP party chairman.

Democrats, too, acknowledge that Quist isn’t without his problems. Republican TV ads repeatedly attack Quist’s various personal financial problems, including “a defaulted loan, tax liens, collections, foreclosure notices.” Republican groups dug into Quist’s medical records and questioned his musical performance at a nudist colony.

“I haven’t seen this kind of opposition research on both sides on a House race in a long time,” said one Democratic strategist who’s worked in the state. “This is what you get when candidates are chosen in a nominating process and there’s no vetting. Some people would say Quist is authentic, an outsider, a la Donald Trump, but Quist has a problematic record because he hasn’t spent his career in politics being careful.”

Quist called in his own big-name reinforcements to activate the Democratic base and cater to the populist streak in the state, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders headlined a handful of rallies alongside Quist last weekend.

It’s a gamble, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said, that could alienate some in the state, where Trump remains popular.

“Rob Quist is too liberal for Montana — he is very liberal. Democrats who have won statewide in Montana tend to be moderate, and Quist is no moderate,” said Daines, who campaigned alongside Gianforte in the final stretch of the race. “Who did he parade across Montana this weekend? Bernie Sanders.”

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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