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What to Make of Montana?

The Great Depression-era Montana: A State Guide Book, produced as part of the federal government’s American Guide Series, notes that the state’s history “is alive with action and color.”

That doubles as a great description of the state’s special at-large congressional election, particularly its outrageous final hours, during which Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte (R, MT-AL) attacked a reporter. The incoming congressman now faces misdemeanor charges even as he basks in the glory of electoral victory.

In previewing the race last week, we thought the likely outcome — a Gianforte win in the single digits — would be notable in that it would continue the trend of Democrats generally outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing in the small but growing number of special U.S. House and state legislative elections. According to a running tally by Daily Kos Elections, MT-AL represented the 18th such election since last November’s presidential election, and the Democrat has now performed better than Clinton in 12 of them, and on average they’ve done 11 points better in terms of margin — a stark contrast to special elections conducted in the leadup to the 2014 midterms, when Democrats routinely undershot Barack Obama’s 2012 margins. That tally includes two big Democratic upsets earlier this week in special state legislative elections in New Hampshire and New York.

Clinton lost Montana by 20 points last year, and musician Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee, lost by six points on Thursday, a 14-point net improvement. It’s another example of this trend and is probably a sign of increased Democratic engagement after the party took a nap in special elections and midterms during the Obama years, as can be typical for the president’s party.

Republicans can come back with the argument that Democrats couldn’t even win a race in a Republican state that routinely elects Democratic governors and senators against a very flawed candidate in Gianforte, nor could they fully capitalize on a national environment that is poor for Republicans at the moment given President Trump’s weak 40% average approval rating.

Then again, Republican outside groups vastly outspent their Democratic counterparts, who were leery of getting too involved in a district that is more Republican than the ones they are likely to target next year: MT-AL was President Trump’s 118th-best district by margin in 2016, and Democrats currently hold only one district more Republican than that (Rep. Collin Peterson’s MN-7). Another consideration for national Democrats: MT-AL is the 125th-most Democratic seat held by Republicans, meaning there are better potential targets. For example, GA-6 ranks 27th on this measure, helping explain the large amount of outside Democratic spending in that race, which will be decided on June 20. Still, it’s easy to imagine some blowback from the Democratic grassroots against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for not spending much in Montana. Some were angered by the DCCC’s non-involvement in the KS-4 special in April, a race the Democratic candidate also lost by six points.

Gianforte’s Wrestlemania moment happened the night before the election after at least two-thirds of the total votes had been cast in advance. Perhaps if this had happened a little bit earlier it may have made a more dramatic effect; as it was, Gianforte’s 11th-hour mistake may have helped Quist. The general rule nationally is that Republicans do a little bit better on Election Day than they do in early voting, but in many counties — such as Yellowstone (Billings) and Cascade (Great Falls) counties — there didn’t seem to be much if any change in margins from early votes and votes cast on Election Day. Quist’s margin improved by a few points after Election Day votes were tallied, meanwhile, in Missoula County, a Democratic bastion.

PredictWise conducted a snap poll Thursday afternoon and found that Gianforte’s lead had dipped to five points from 12 points in polling it had done a week ago (see more here from PredictWise’s David Rothschild). So perhaps this did shave a few points off Gianforte’s margin of victory, but it’s impossible to know with much certainty without robust exit polling, which was not conducted in Montana.

Given that Montana is an at-large state, we can compare data at the county level to last year’s presidential race and look for trends. Within those results is an encouraging sign for Democrats, although before getting into it we’ll simply caution readers that a single election with two unusual candidates is not necessarily applicable to other races.

In the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, Crystal Ball contributor Robert Wheel identified some typically Republican and Democratic counties that, because of their demographic traits, might break their longstanding streaks of supporting one party or the other.

Wheel noted some well-educated and/or diverse longtime Republican counties that might support Hillary Clinton because of Donald Trump’s well-documented problems with white college-educated and nonwhite voters. Some of the ones he mentioned, like California’s Orange County, did indeed flip (Orange County hadn’t voted Democratic for president since 1936). On the other hand, Trump’s unusually impressive strength with working-class whites — essentially, whites without college degrees — gave him the opportunity to flip some usually reliable Democratic counties. Sure enough, Trump did run extraordinarily well in many counties with these characteristics, helping him break the supposed Democratic “Blue Wall” in the Midwest. Some examples include Itasca County, MN, which voted Republican last for president last year for the first time since 1928, and Elliott County, KY, a county that had never voted for a Republican in its entire history. Trump didn’t just win it – he racked up an eye-popping 44-point margin.

Clinton held two counties with Trumpy profiles in Montana, Deer Lodge and Silver Bow in the state’s southwestern corner, but she did so with dramatically reduced margins from typical Democratic presidential showings. Obama had won both by 32 points in 2012, but Clinton only carried Deer Lodge by seven and Silver Bow by 14.

Quist restored Democratic order in these counties, winning both by 34 points. Granted, that’s a little weaker than Obama’s 32-point respective wins in each relative to the statewide vote in each election, given that Quist lost statewide by six and Obama lost statewide by 14, but it does provide a very limited example suggesting that Trump’s performance in some traditional white working-class bastions may not be transferable to other Republicans, at least in the short term.

Reclaiming many of these counties is a must for Democratic candidates across the North. For instance, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) needs to regenerate traditional Democratic margins in the Greater Youngstown area — an area that swung very heavily to Trump — in order to win his likely rematch with state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) next year.

In any event, Thursday’s results provide both parties with a little bit of mental reinforcement. Republicans avoided a loss that could have further upset their jittery battleground members, and Democrats can point to overall special election trends that suggest the opportunity for significant gains next year if they can be replicated on a nationalized scale. There’s a long way to go.

Before we leave Montana behind and look ahead to the intensely expensive and competitive GA-6 special election next month, we need to re-rate Gianforte now that he’s a congressman-elect.

We had the MT-AL special listed as Leans Republican going into the election, and for now that’s where we’re going to keep it. Gianforte still has a misdemeanor assault charge hanging over his head, and perhaps an opportunistic Democrat may smell blood in the water looking ahead to next year. Then again, Gianforte’s body slam may eventually blow over and not do him any lasting harm, and Democrats may very well be looking at many other districts next year (indeed, the national party did not prioritize the special election much at all compared to the GOP).

So it may be that we eventually upgrade Gianforte to Likely or Safe Republican, but we’ll hold off for now given the uncertainty introduced by these last few days of “action and color.”