Don’t let Montana ruin your weekend.
Granted, it was a lousy way to get into a Memorial Day celebration. We’re supposed to be thinking about good times and a change in the seasons. Then Montana gives its sole House seat to a Donald Trump supporter who had just assaulted a reporter for having the temerity to ask a question about health care legislation.
“Great win in Montana,” Trump said. This was shortly after the president’s disastrous appearance at a NATO meeting in which he behaved like the unpopular rich kid whose idea of making small talk is telling people how much his shoes cost.
But about that election. We’re going to come up with a useful explanation, and then start grilling with a peaceful heart.
The story began with the incumbent congressman, Ryan Zinke, being appointed secretary of the interior. You will remember that Zinke was the Cabinet member who rode to his new job on a horse named Tonto. In the list of bizarre things done by Trump appointees, this did not even make the top 100.
So the seat was open, and the Republicans nominated Greg Gianforte, a very rich and unlovable software mogul who had lost the governor’s race to a Democrat last year while Trump was carrying the state by 20 points. The Democrats chose Rob Quist, a country music singer.
Quist appeared to be a nice guy, but he wasn’t the perfect pick – there was a history of unpaid taxes, and some voters found it unnerving that he performed regularly with his daughter at a nudist resort. Also, he got precious little help from the national Democrats, who had doubts about his ability to win.
But Quist got backing from Trump-weary Americans around the country, who donated $6 million to his race. Hope twitched.
Then on election eve Gianforte assaulted Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, while screaming that he was “sick and tired of you guys.” It was the kind of hysterical response you might anticipate if a gang of journalists were surrounding him, yelling, “What about that pole dancer?” But Jacobs just wanted to know Gianforte’s ever-evolving position on the Republican health care bill.
Given a choice between saying “I haven’t decided” and physical assault, Gianforte went for putting his hands on Jacobs’s throat and throwing him to the ground, according to a Fox reporter who witnessed the scene. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means you can’t body-slam a journalist,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. We’re putting Sasse in here just to make it clear that there are people in both parties who know how dangerous and crazy this behavior was.
Not all people in one party. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, grinning like a maniac, posed with a picture of a bullet-ridden target and joked about shooting reporters. Rep. Duncan Hunter of San Diego helpfully offered that attacking a journalist was “not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.” Hunter is under investigation for campaign finance fraud, involving everything from jewelry to private school tuition to flying the family rabbit on a plane. But we’re sure he’s not bitter.
After all that, Gianforte still got a smidge more than half the vote. Quist got 44 percent and the rest went to the Libertarian candidate. The national Democrats thought that was actually pretty good, and pointed to estimates that there are 114 other Republican-held seats that are more potentially winnable next year.
Still, what happened with this one? You’ve got a thug of a candidate who’s now facing a misdemeanor assault charge, attached to a president who’s on track to inspire more investigations than the entire “Law & Order” franchise.
And it’s not as if Democrats can’t win elections in Montana – right now there’s a Democratic governor and one senator from each party. (Because the voters are so open-minded, we will not mention that Montana has exactly the same number of senators as California, which has 38 times as many people.)
The answer is that when it comes to the House of Representatives, Montana goes for the party, not the person. And that makes a certain sense – the House is a super-partisan place where generally the most individuals can do is bring home some pork and maybe torture their leadership.
The current Republican Party is obviously, um, flawed. But the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the House since 1994 and it’s going to require something large to turn things around.
The message of Montana is that right now, Republican-leaning voters need to hear a real Democratic message. The party’s great at complaining, but not very clear on how it wants to fix Obamacare or make college affordable or transform the economy beyond raising the minimum wage.
It’s all well and good – and really very satisfying – to harp constantly about the terribleness of Donald Trump. But people need to see the Democratic line on the ballot and think of something more than Not as Dreadful.
Then comes the great turnaround. Looking forward. Meanwhile, have a hot dog on me.