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‘Fringe’ Republican in Montana Congressional Race Faces Close Contest

Don Pogreba

With less than ten days left in the election, most observers argue that turnout and voter enthusiasm will decide the race.

The Montana special election to replace Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke as the state’s sole representative in the U.S. House of Representatives is getting tighter less than ten days before election day on May 25.

Democrat Rob Quist, a folk singer best known before the race as the former guitarist and banjo player for the Mission Mountain Wood Band, was, according to polling, trailing Republican Greg Gianforte by 15 points. He’s shrunk that gap to single digits, encouraging the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to invest $600,000 in the race and leading political observers in and out of Montana to wonder if he can pull off the upset and win a House seat Republicans have controlled since 1994.

The Cook Political Report this week shifted the race from a “likely” Republican win to one “leaning” the GOP’s way, and two polls conducted since late April suggest Gianforte’s lead has shrunk to single digits.

Flipping the traditional script in Montana politics in which Republican candidates typically outraise Democrats, the Quist campaign has competitively fundraised, bringing in $1.3 million for the first quarter of 2017 by mid-April, nearly $1 million of which was raised in March, reported Montana Public Radio. The pace of Quist’s donations led Gianforte to ask a conference call of D.C. lobbyists for donations of $5,000 each to “scare off some other Democrat money,” according to the New York Times.

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Quist even outraised Gianforte in the most recent financial reporting period, bringing in $2.3 million in individual contributions to Gianforte’s $1.6 million, which included a $1 million loan Gianforte extended to his campaign.

Gianforte, a former tech entrepreneur who sold his share of the company RightNow Technologies to Oracle for $300 million-$400 million, has not shied from a conservative message in the campaign.

In a conservative state, Gianforte’s views are seen by many as more extreme than those of the mainstream Republican Party. Democratic State Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, a four-term legislator from Missoula, told Rewire that Gianforte “is way more fringe than the everyday conservatives in Montana politics. It is well known that he is not favored by the Main Street GOP who supported more moderate policies like the expansion of Medicaid and more focus on business, less on ideology.”

Discussing Gianforte’s public opposition to a non-discrimination ordinance in Bozeman and funding for groups that oppose same-sex marriage, Kim Leighton, a long-time Montana LGBTQ Advocate, told Rewire that the Republican would be “a dangerous choice for our community and others.”

“Our community currently suffers from fear, discrimination, and violence,” Leighton said. “We need a champion for our rights and our humanity, not someone who has been advocating for years against everything we believe in and deserve.”

Gianforte has donated millions to groups that fund religious imposition laws, anti-choice efforts, and opposition to non-discrimination measures through his family’s foundation. In Montana, the Gianforte Family Foundation gave the largest individual donation to a creationist dinosaur museum that argues dinosaurs and humans coexisted fewer than 6,000 years ago.

Between 2004 and 2012, the foundation gave $637,000 to the Montana Family Foundation, the most prominent and well-funded anti-choice and anti-equality organization in the state, according to a Rewire analysis. It has also donated heavily to fake clinics known as “crisis pregnancy centers” which often lie to women to persuade them not to have an abortion.

Gianforte’s support for anti-LGBTQ groups extends to organizations that have performed conversion therapy. Former State Sen. Christine Kaufmann, the first openly gay member of the Montana Senate, noted in an opinion column last April for the Missoulian that Gianforte had donated over $500,000 to organizations that support that practice such as Focus on the Family, along with groups that argue that “homosexuality is preventable and treatable.”

Gianforte has staked out a stringently anti-choice message. In addition to his foundation’s funding of groups opposed to abortion rights, he has called for defunding Planned Parenthood and told the Billings-Gazette in early May that “We should have a culture that values life from conception to natural death.” He supports exceptions to abortion bans for cases of life endangerment, but not rape or incest.

Instead of focusing on local issues, Gianforte has committed to turning the race into a statewide referendum on the Trump presidency. When he received the Republican nomination on March 6, he called the race “ground zero in the liberals’ attempts to stop the Trump Train.” Since then, he’s had the support of Vice President Mike Pence, who attended his campaign rallies last week, and Donald Trump Jr. who has come to the state twice.

That national spotlight brought unwelcome attention to Gianforte last week, as he struck two different messages on the House vote to pass the GOP’s American Health Care Act. While Gianforte told the Montana press that he was undecided on how he would have voted had he been in Congress, he was recorded telling D.C. lobbyists that he was “thankful” for its passage.

Quist has avoided the temptation to moderate his message and run to the middle—notably earning him the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). In the sole televised debate in the race, he staked out a combination of progressive positions not typically associated with Rocky Mountain Democrats: a call to end the failed war on drugs, affirmation of the need to fund Planned Parenthood, and a call to end tax cuts that benefit the wealthy.

Quist has instead focused his campaign on economic themes, arguing that Montanans will be better represented by a representative who comes from the middle class, arguing at events across the state and in a recent campaign ad that the House of Representatives should not be “the millionaires club.”

Quist has embraced women’s rights in the campaign. On the same day that Gianforte met with Donald Trump Jr., Quist held a series of health-care roundtable discussions with women. He has articulated a pro-choice stance, arguing in the debate that it’s “a settled question” that abortion decisions should be made by a woman with “their doctor, their family, and their faith and without any government intrusion.”

Quist has received the endorsement of both Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana and NARAL Pro-Choice Montana.

With ten days left until the election, most observers argue that turnout and voter enthusiasm will decide the race. State Rep. Hill Smith believes the combination of Gianforte’s conservative policy positions and Quist’s embrace of progressive causes could lead Quist to pull off the upset on May 25, telling Rewire that “‘enthusiastic voters,’ the women’s marchers, the Bernie supporters, the disaffected and the angry and the students” could help Quist win in Montana.

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