By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Are Democrats making gains in Montana, or is support for President Donald Trump slipping among state conservatives? Both may be true, and political watchdogs say the state's 2018 race for Congress may depend on what happens nationally over the next 18 months.

Montana Republicans celebrated another political victory on Thursday night, with Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte winning the state with 50 percent of the vote to Democrat Rob Quist's 44 percent.

While it was a win for state Republicans by any measure, Trump captured Montana just seven months ago by more than 20 percentage points, while Ryan Zinke won by 16 points over Denise Juneau.

The fact that Democrats managed to close the gap to 6 percentage points in a congressional race that drew the president's top surrogates and millions in spending has energized the state party, leading Matt McKenna, an adviser to the Quist campaign, to tell CNN that national Republicans “have to be very nervous considering how much they spent.”

Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said Thursday night that she was pleased by Quist's ground game, though she declined to say how Democrats plan to overcome the stubborn gap that stands between them and a U.S. House victory.

Democrats haven't held the state's only seat in Congress since 1997, when it was occupied by Pat Williams. Gianforte will be forced to defend that seat next year.

“I'm not going to speculate about what's to come, because I'm very optimistic," Keenan said. “The fact of the matter is, we take each race, each time.”

Overall, Democrats believe they made strides with Thursday night's outcome, though GOP chairman Jeff Essmann said he's not concerned about a slip in support.


The Montana GOP wasn't accepting voice messages Friday morning and didn't immediately return emails seeking comment, though Essmann told one news outlet on Thursday that the special election results show “the people of Montana still support Donald Trump's agenda.”

Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena, said both Democrats and Republicans have positive and negative takeaways from Thursday's special election.

With justification, he said, both parties can point to certain results to make their arguments.

“For Republicans, they were able to keep their core supporters,” Johnson said. “They did well in traditional rural counties and the swing areas, like Yellowstone and Cascade counties. We knew the election was over once the Yellowstone absentee ballots came in.”

Gianforte won Yellowstone County with 56 percent of the vote to Quist's 37 percent. He also won Cascade County with nearly 50 percent of the vote to Quist's 43 percent.

But despite Gianforte's win in the two large swing counties, Johnson said there may be signs of trouble in the Republican camp, especially in urban areas.

“There was an erosion of support among Republicans,” said Johnson. “We saw strong results for Democrats in Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties. Democrats have been able to cut into the Republican margins, but not enough to actually win the state.”

Quist easily won Lewis and Clark, Gallatin and Missoula counties, the latter giving the Democrat his biggest margin of victory with 63 percent of the vote.

Even so, Johnson said, Democrats will likely continue to struggle in Montana, barring a disaster in the Trump administration.

“I think Democrats will continue to struggle in some of these white, rural states,” Johnson said. “In order to flip some of these rural states, we'll have to see some of the legislation get enacted. Right now, it's kind of abstract for the typical voter.”

Johnson said proposed policies by the Trump administration, including cuts to health care and other services relied upon in rural states like Montana, could be felt by voters in the year's ahead.

That could impact Gianforte's reelection bid in November 2018, where he'll face a new Democratic challenger and new issues. He also faces a day in Gallatin County court to face charges of misdemeanor assault.

“2018 could be competitive for the House seat,” Johnson said. “With Gianforte, we'll have to see what happens with his appearance before court, and what happens across the nation over the next year with the Trump administration.

“But Montana is not really the best state for Democrats to flip.”


Contact reporter Martin Kidston at