I’ll forgive you if you’ve forgotten the reason for the Montana special election, which takes place today. It’s for a single congressional seat—the state has only one House representative due to its population—which was vacated earlier this year by Ryan Zinke when he was chosen by Trump to become the Secretary of the Interior.
Anne Helen Petersen has been reporting for BuzzFeed from Montana for months, and her definitive feature on the special election is a careful, compassionate, and clever look at the Montana voter—a true political unicorn who won’t be pandered to or told how to vote.
The special election may seem like a tantalizing chance for Democrats to turn a red state blue—56 percent of voters swung for Trump. “But that same election, 50.2 percent also voted for their Democratic governor, Steve Bullock,” Petersen reminds us, and “in 2012, 48.6 percent voted for Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat.”
The Montana special election won’t be a referendum on Trump. It won’t even necessarily tell us what will happen in the midterms. But it, and Montana politics in general, does offer a master class on something even more important: namely, how to cultivate and actually sway one of the most valuable, and increasingly rare, of political entities — the independent voter…
Montanans don’t like big government, but they also have very little tolerance for getting screwed over. One way to prevent that is by preventing any one political party from obtaining too much power. “Montanans tend to be more independent,” Andy Shirtliff, who works with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, told me. “They hopscotch on the political map. Voting for both Dems and Republicans means checks and balances, and that’s what you get with the way we vote.”
Checks and balances are rare nowadays in government—even in a system specifically designed for them—and the chaos in Washington shows what happens when untrammeled power mismatches the diverse needs of the people. Montana has only a few levers of power and it likes to keep things blended: There’s currently a Democratic governor, one Democratic senator, one Republican senator, and the congressional seat up for grabs was held by a Republican.
On the ballot are Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist. Both candidates are new to politics, and their backgrounds are…different. Greg Gianforte is a tech billionare who sold his company to Oracle, and Rob Quist is a career musician who uses his life-saving gallbladder surgery to argue for universal health care. In a big state like Montana, it’s essential to know the population intimately—voters who are literally few and far between:
Even if the idea of a “real Montana” is increasingly difficult to live or pin down, Montanans still wants legislators who still seem to embody it. This “real Montana” leader promises to remain independent, to protect the 2nd Amendment, to protect public lands, to resist DC forces, and to do right by Montana, whatever it takes.
Quist is spectacularly easy to frame this way. Whereas Gianforte has a section of his website devoted to pictures of “Montana Moments” — essentially documenting that he and his family spend time outside — Quist’s site is filled with shots of him smiling balefully in his cowboy hat. Gianforte’s a billionaire, with investments and interests all over the world; by contrast, Quist comes off as a humble troubadour, whose actual job is listening to and telling the stories of people who live here. Quist even explicitly addresses the “real Montanans” who generally get overlooked: he’s pledged to support a better quality of life for Native Americans; he explicitly supports women’s reproductive rights and will fight the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
“In Montana, there’s a real premium on knowing people.” So says Deirdre McNamer, a novelist from Missoula who grew up with Quist. “It produces a different way of judging candidates: Do they know what life is like?”
With a population that knows just about everything about everyone, Montana is state politics with the intimacy of a local election. Which is why when something goes wrong, it can go wrong with a great speed.
The day before the election, something went wrong. When Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs approached Republican candidate Greg Gianforte and persisted in asking him about the recent CBO score on the heath care bill, three Fox News reporters described the scene:
Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!”
Now, hours before the election, Gianforte has been charged with assault and the Missoulan and other Montana news organizations have rescinded endorsements of the candidate. Local news is taking the situation seriously.
If you’re wondering if the local papers are covering this, here’s the top 4 stories at the Billings Gazette: pic.twitter.com/QvQ3yJrLkq
— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) May 25, 2017
I would recommend following Anne Helen Petersen on Twitter as the day’s events unfold. (She’s currently following a group of native residents as they explain the conditions that make it harder for them to vote.) While the Montana Special Election may not be a referendum on Trump, it may be a referendum on something voters have lost sight of: The politician who serves a complex populace with complex needs, and the necessity of a system that checks these politicians whenever they no longer serve the people.