BILLINGS, Mont. — Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. crisscrossed Montana in the last 24 hours to gin up support for Republican Greg Gianforte in the upcoming special House election, as Gianforte’s margin in public and private polling has shrunk to single digits in the last weeks of the race.
While President Donald Trump’s poll numbers sag nationwide, Gianforte has tied himself closely to the administration ahead of the May 25 red-state special election. The Trump surrogates, along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, are trying to rev GOP enthusiasm back up six months after Trump carried Montana by 20 percentage points in the presidential race. Republican groups are also pouring in millions of dollars to avoid unexpected surprises after some closer-than-expected special elections in Georgia and Kansas.
“I talked to the president this afternoon and he asked me to say two things. First, he said, ‘Tell Montana, thanks,’” Pence said at a rally Friday evening, referring to Trump’s 2016 victory. “And then he said to me, ‘Tell them that Trump needs Greg Gianforte in the Congress of the United States.’”
But Democrat Rob Quist, the folk singer and political novice who’s running against Gianforte, has broken $4 million in contributions for his underdog campaign — powered by the same anti-Trump fervor that raised millions of dollars for Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in the other high-profile House special election.
“To me, it just shows they’re really worried,” Quist said. “They’re bringing out all their big guns. They know that they’re in danger of losing this race.”
Quist has also embraced national help, with Sen. Bernie Sanders set to headline four rallies across the state next weekend.
But Republican jitters are calmed somewhat by Trump’s popularity here. Despite low approval numbers nationwide, WPA Intelligence, the Republican polling and analytics firm, estimated in its national voter models that that Montana voters who approve of Trump’s job performance outnumbered disapprovers 2.4 to 1 last month.
“I voted for Obama twice and I got caught up in his message, but I love Trump,” said Chris Groscop, a 40-year-old small business owner who attended the rally with his wife, Brandy. “He speaks to us. I like that it’s something different every day with him.”
In embracing Trump for the special election to replace Zinke in the House in 2017, Gianforte is breaking with his own losing campaign for governor in 2016.
Gianforte didn’t campaign with Trump during his sole appearance in the state last May, and several GOP operatives noted that there was “chatter that he wasn’t very pro-Trump,” as one Republican source in the state put it. (A Gianforte spokesman said that Gianforte had already committed to another campaign event on the same day last year.)
“Greg’s team probably thinks using Trump is a good move because Trump won the state, and Greg didn’t,” said one Republican strategist who’s worked in Montana. “But Trump wasn’t a factor in the governor’s race, and now it’s their whole strategy to ride [Trump’s] coattails to win.”
While Trump scored a dominant victory in 2016, Gianforte lost to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock by 4 points in Montana last year.
Gianforte’s supporters attribute the loss to Bullock’s incumbency and Gianforte’s failure to “get in front of some attacks that had a lot of untruths in them, as maybe he should have done,” said state Rep. Sue Vinton. “I think he’s learned from that in this race.”
But Democrats say the problems that dogged Gianforte in his gubernatorial race are sticking to him again in the House race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s TV ads describe Gianforte as a millionaire transplant who doesn’t support access to public lands, echoing Bullock’s strategy from 2016.
“You’ve seen it before — millionaires buying trophy ranches in Montana, then suing to block you out. Well, it’s exactly what this millionaire from New Jersey did,” the narrator says in one DCCC ad. “When he wanted to be governor, Montana said ‘no.’ Now Gianforte is desperate to be congressman, but Montana is not buying it.”
Quist echoed the sentiment on the stump in Great Falls, where he said to three-dozen supporters, “We don’t need more millionaires in Washington, D.C.”
“Gianforte is a millionaire lapdog,” said Marla Embody, a 62-year-old retiree who attended the Quist event, which featured a musical performance by Quist’s daughter. “If Trump says jump, he says how high.”
While Gianforte draws on national Republicans to boost his campaign, the GOP is also using a time-honored strategy of linking Quist to national Democrats, to paint Quist as a bad fit for Montana.
Quist “wants to join liberal Nancy Pelosi in Washington to spend even more and stick us with the bill,” one National Republican Congressional Committee ad says. The GOP has also attacked Quist’s financial troubles, spotlighting debts that are “piling up” in “property taxes liens, over $400,000 in foreclosure notices, collections.”
At the rally Friday, Republicans also hammered Quist’s position on guns and his “F” rating from the National Rifle Association, which has endorsed Gianforte.
“Let me tell you something — when you flunk the gun test in Montana, you flunk the election,” Daines said to loud cheers. One sign read: “NRA + Greg = A+.”
Quist said his financial struggles are relatable to Montana voters, who see him as “one of us,” who’s “fallen on hard times and gotten out of them,” he added.
Republicans are girding for a close finish on May 25 — an unusually timed Thursday election, just before Memorial Day weekend, which has strategists uncertain about voter turnout. But the GOP is already arguing that a small winning margin months after Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in the state won’t signal doom for Republicans in 2018.
According to Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman, Montana isn’t the place to look for answers on national politics, given how regularly the state has elected both Democrats and Republicans to major offices.
“Is it going to be a referendum on Trump? Montanans are fairly independent-minded,” Pitman said. “We don’t always send very clear signals.”