Democrats have another chance for a special election upset in Montana’s At-Large Congressional District. With a Republican candidate who assaulted a reporter, supports Trumpcare and is being dragged down by Trump's approval ratings, Democrats have a chance to win this special election. This congressional seat represents all of Montana.
Montana is a politically interesting state. It voted for Trump by 21 points in 2016 but in 2008 voted for McCain by only three points. Despite Montana’s rural conservatism in the eastern part of the state, it has a growing number of transplants in western Montana in areas such as Gallatin County (Bozeman) and Missoula County (Missoula). Also, Montana has a long tradition of voting Democratic in local elections. In 2012 for example, Montana Senator Jon Tester (D) won by four points with high margins in blue collar areas in western Montana. He played up his Montana roots, running an ad talking about how he brings Montana grown beef to Washington D.C. and the ad showed the beef going through an airport baggage checkpoint In 2016 even, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) won reelection by four points against New Jersey native Greg Gianforte (R) (the same group of voters elected Trump by 21 points). Bullock won by painting Gianforte as an anti working class outsider. In this house race, Rob Quist (D) is running against none other than Gianforte.
Quist is running a campaign centered around economic populism because Quist is trying to win over the working class voters who backed Bullock in 2016. Quist in addition is using part of Bullock’s campaign strategy against Gianforte by painting Gianforte as an outsider and highlighting Gianforte’s land use practices that many Montanans may find unfair (Gianforte blocked access to a river he owns which is unpopular due to Montana’s hunting tradition and hunters’ support for increased land access). Quist is also avoiding tying Gianforte to Trump except with the AHCA, which Gianforte supports and is unpopular in Montana. An example is a Quist ad where he says, “There are about 300 millionaires in Congress, but not one Montana folk singer.” Quist is a Montana folk singer. While Gianforte has an advantage (there are no public polls showing Quist ahead and Democrats do not do well in Montana House seat elections), a close race here can be a good sign for Democrats in places such as GA-06.
This analysis will highlight the minimum percentage Quist must receive in each county in order to reach 50.01% of the two party vote and win the election (this is not a map of my final projection of the result, this map shows how well Quist must perform in each county to hit 50.1% and win). These county benchmarks were created by calculating the 2016 Presidential and Gubernatorial elections.
Below are key counties which are likely Quist strongholds, likely Gianforte strongholds and bellwethers Quist must win in order to hit 50%. What Quist must do is increase turnout of the college educated transplants Clinton carried, increase turnout on Native American reservations and win enough working class voters of the Tester and Bullock coalition.
Montana County Benchmarks Map:
Dark Blue: Quist 65%+
Blue: Quist 55%-64%
Light Blue: Quist 50%-54%
Pale Red: Gianforte 50%-54%
Light Brown/Red: Gianforte 55%-64%
Red: Gianforte 65%+
Montana County Label Map:
County Data Table:
(Key Democratic counties are highlighted in blue, key Republican ones are in red and key bellwether counties are in purple).
Quist (D) %
% of total vote
Lewis & Clark
The Democratic base in Montana has three key demographics:
- College educated transplants.
- Blue collar voters, some with a union background.
- Native Americans.
Montana has a 6% Native American population and Native Americans can play a large role in a close statewide election (in 2002 for example, high Native American turnout helped elect South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson (D) to Senate in an election decided by less than 1,000 votes but with high turnout in Native American reservations. South Dakota also has a similar percentage of Native Americans to Montana). Big Horn County has a 65% Native American population. Quist needs to win Big Horn by 27 points or more in order to win statewide.
While Deer Lodge will vote Democratic, the question is by how much. Deer Lodge trended sharply toward Trump who lost by only seven points in 2016, despite President Obama winning here by 40 points in 2008. Many of the voters here are or were affiliated with unions in the mining industry. These are the voters who will be most receptive to Quist’s pro Montana and anti AHCA message. Quist needs to win by 36 points or more here. When Democrats talk about working class voters they need to win back that switched from Obama to Trump, they are talking about voters here.
These are key counties for Democratic wins in Montana (and they are grouped together for demographic similarity). Combined they will cast almost a quarter of the total vote. Missoula County which will cast 12% of the Montana vote is home to the University of Montana, it voted over 60% for Sanders in the primary and it has many progressive transplants. Clinton won here by 18 points in the general election. With Quist running his liberal Sanders style campaign here and even inviting Sanders to campaign with him in Montana, he must do extremely well in Missoula, winning by at least 35 points. Gallatin County (Bozeman) has well educated transplants and was the only county in Montana to flip from Romney to Clinton (and it will cast 11% of Montana’s votes). Sanders attracted a 3,000 person rally here. Quist needs that excitement in Gallatin County in order to win it by at least 17 points to be on track to beat Gianforte.
The Republican base is mainly in the eastern part of the state (with parts of western Montana such as Flathead County) in counties with high numbers of evangelicals, libertarians and ranchers.
Gianforte winning a county 85%-15% should look good for him. Actually, it does not if that county is Garfield County (it is a rural county in eastern Montana). Trump won here 90%-5% in 2016 and Gianforte won here 84%-16% in 2016 (when he lost). Garfield was Trump’s best Montana County and is normally a statewide Republican candidate’s best county. Unlike blue collar counties in the west with some union backgrounds that flipped to Trump but backed Bullock and Tester, these eastern rural counties such as Garfield have little to no union background nor a history of backing statewide Democrats. Their background is in ranching, farming, and they are extremely evangelical and Republican. Quist also has a ranching background and has run ads highlighting it. Quist does not need to win counties such as Garfield, Quist’s strategy is to use his pro Montana and anti AHCA message to flip just a small number of voters, so he can receive 15% of the vote here instead of 5%. If Quist loses by 70 points or less in Garfield County, it is a good night for him.
Despite being the most populous county in Montana, Yellowstone County (Billings) is expected to vote Republican. Billings is an urban area and urban areas are trending Democratic but Billings is connected to the coal and oil industry. It is the urban center of the eastern rural counties such as Garfield. Even Bullock was unable to win here, although he lost by one point. Here, Quist needs to lose by six points or less, highlighting his ranching background may play well here.
As the fifth most populous Montana county and home to “Great Falls,” Cascade County is an important bellwether to watch. Voting Democratic nationally as recently as 2008, Cascade County shifted toward Trump, voting for him by 23 points, above his statewide margin of 20 points. This is where the working class voters who flipped from President Obama to Trump live. Bullock won here by 11 though, showing Cascade County will still vote for the right local Democrat. Cascade County used to be more Democratic leaning than the rest of the state but its shift toward Trump has turned it into more of a bellwether. If Quist is able to win Cascade County and win it by three points or more, it will show he is winning over blue collar voters and his anti AHCA message combined with highlighting Gianforte’s carpetbagging and land use problems is working. Quist must win Cascade County, he cannot win without it.
Lake County is an example of another blue collar rural county. Obama won here in 2008, Sen. Tester (D) consistently wins here (Tester is an example of a blue collar Democratic performance in Montana) and in order to win, Quist will need to win here or at least lose by one point. Quist’s blue collar strategy attacking Gianforte for being outside of Montana and restricting land use is what Quist is using to win, look to Lake County to see if Quist’s strategy is working.
Even though many pundits predict that Gianforte will win, as the results on Tuesday show where Democrats gained two legislative seats in Trump territory, an upset is possible (and a last minute shift after Gianforte assaulted a reporter is possible too although 2/3rds of likely voters cast ballots before the assault). Roll Call has this race at “Tilt Republican”.
About 50% of the votes will be cast in Gallatin, Missoula, Yellowstone, Lewis + Clark and Cascade Counties.
To win, Quist needs a combination of high Native American turnout, the working class Democrats Tester and Bullock won in areas such as Cascade County and college educated Democrats in Missoula County.
While the results are reporting, keep these three factors in mind to look for an upset:
- Is Quist running up the score among all parts of the Democratic base with college educated voters in Missoula and Gallatin Counties, working class union voters in Deer Lodge County and Native American voters in Big Horn County?
- Who is winning the blue collar bellwethers of Lake and Cascade Counties? Cascade County is key, Quist cannot win Montana without winning Cascade County.
- Are Quist’s ads about his ranching background and Montana roots working and preventing Gianforte from winning landslide 85%+ margins in the eastern rural ranching counties such as Garfield County?
Enjoy watching the results tonight and keep in mind that in Montana, Democratic areas report early so do not get too excited if Quist takes an early lead. Watch the bellwether counties and the margins in the key counties because they will determine who wins.