BOZEMAN, Mont. — The ending was shocking, but the result was no surprise.
Despite a bizarre election eve altercation with a reporter that led to a citation for misdemeanor assault, Republican Greg Gianforte kept a red-state House seat in Republican hands in Thursday’s Montana special election.
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Yet his closer-than-expected victory against Democrat Rob Quist for the at-large congressional seat proved revealing, exposing GOP weaknesses that could threaten the party’s House majority in 2018 but reminding Democrats of the uphill climb ahead against President Donald Trump.
Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways after the messy two-month brawl and wild final 24 hours:
Trump was an asset, not a drag
Trump won Montana by 21 points in November, and Gianforte — then running for governor — lost by 4. But this time around, Gianforte wrapped himself as close to the president as possible, despite Democrats’ insistence that Trump’s low approval ratings and constant White House turmoil will be a drag on GOP candidates nationwide.
Campaigning with Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr., relying on last-second robocalls from the president and Pence, using Trump’s campaign slogans — all of it worked to Gianforte’s advantage.
“Everything I see is that Greg Gianforte is trying to make him completely front and center. He might have muttered his name once or twice when he was running against me and now he wants to ‘drain the swamp’ and says, ‘I want to be with Trump every step of the way,’” said the state’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday — nearly seven months after he himself defeated Gianforte.
Quist, meanwhile, barely talked about Trump at all on the trail.
For Gianforte, the biggest applause lines of his Thursday night speech came when he mentioned Trump and used his "drain the swamp" theme. Local Republicans dismissed the idea that the president could drag Gianforte to defeat as preposterous.
Speaking at Gianforte’s election night party in Bozeman before the race was called, former Rep. Denny Rehberg said the national coverage of the race had set up a lose-lose scenario for Trump.
“If Gianforte wins with anything less than 20 percent, it’s [seen as] a loss for Trump, it’s a trend, and, ‘Oh my God, you better be paying attention!’ If Quist wins, it’s going to be, ‘We told you so, Trump’s an idiot.’"
All eyes shift to Georgia
After an intense focus on Montana in the run-up to Thursday’s vote, much of the attention is now likely to shift back to Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff is looking to pick off the seat formerly held by Tom Price, now secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. That special election will be held June 20, when Ossoff faces off with Republican Karen Handel.
It’s already the most expensive House race in history — and now, national groups on both sides of the aisle will face even more pressure to pump resources into the contest.
Democrats need a win to prove momentum is on their side and to ensure that the party’s energized base doesn’t become demoralized. Republicans need a win to calm the nerves of incumbents worried about their chances in the midterm elections and to make the case that Trump isn’t the anchor many political pros believe him to be.
So when do Democrats actually win something?
Powered by seething anti-Trump sentiment, the Democratic Party keeps turning in strong performances in special elections in Republican-friendly districts. But they still haven’t won any of those races.
Quist came closer than expected in the race for the seat now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke won by 15 points back in November. But the results fit the pattern set in a Kansas special election earlier this year — where the Democrat came just short in now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s old seat — and in suburban Atlanta — where Ossoff was aiming for a win that would enable him to bypass a June runoff where his chances of winning weren’t as strong.
Ossoff could still win the runoff next month, providing an adrenaline shot to Democrats. But if he doesn’t, some party operatives are concerned the money flow — unprecedented amounts of campaign cash were pumped into the Georgia and Montana races — will slow to a trickle.
The Republican freak-out has been delayed
If Gianforte had lost, national Republican leaders were ready to throw him under the bus to make the case that it was the candidate’s own flaws, not adverse current political conditions, that were at fault.
“When we run shitty candidates, it’s going to be hard to win,” said one Republican operative closely involved in the race on Wednesday. “In the three races so far this year, we’re running shitty candidates, it’s just the fact.”
But Gianforte’s victory now allows them to push back forcefully on the idea that Democrats’ over-performance in special elections so far portends a wave election in 2018 that will sweep out the GOP House majority.
“It has zero predictive value of 2018,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan that’s invested heavily in the special elections so far, on Wednesday. “People just write about the energy that Democrats have, but look at the candidates they’ve put forth in all these races. Quist is a glorified homeless person. He raised $7 million and he’s still going to lose. Ossoff is a glorified child who was born to rich parents and he’ll lose.”
So, for the time being at least, Republicans have delayed the reckoning that many privately assume is coming. At least until Georgia votes.
Press-bashing: the new normal
Much of the vote had already been cast before Election Day in Montana, so it’s impossible to gauge the impact of Gianforte’s run-in with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.
But if nothing else, the Republican’s win demonstrates that a candidate’s hostility toward the media is no deal-breaker for voters — and it might even be helpful.
Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Gianforte regularly made fun of East Coast reporters on the campaign trail to gin up his supporters. Indeed, his altercation Wednesday night was widely laughed off by attendees at his Election Day party, as they stared — some angrily — at the media gathered there. In his speech at the end of the night, when Gianforte apologized to the reporter he had assaulted, an attendee yelled that he was forgiven, as others shook their head, expressing the opinion that he shouldn’t have to apologize.
Earlier in the evening, the media hatred was even a punch line of supporters’ jokes.
Eyeing a reporter’s press badge skeptically just after polls closed, one attendee explained, “We’re looking for the right press to flip off.” Then she laughed and walked away.