BOZEMAN, Mont. — The Democratic defeat in a hard-fought special House election in Montana on Thursday highlighted the practical limitations on liberal opposition to President Trump and exposed a deepening rift between cautious party leaders, who want to pick their shots in battling for control of Congress in 2018, and more militant grass-roots activists who want to fight the Republicans everywhere.
Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee in Montana, staked his campaign on the Republican health care bill, but he still lost by six percentage points, even after his Republican opponent for the state’s lone House seat, Greg Gianforte, was charged with assaulting a reporter on the eve of the election.
The margin in this race was relatively small in a state that Mr. Trump carried by more than 20 percentage points last year. But Mr. Quist’s defeat disappointed grass-roots Democrats who financed nearly his entire campaign while the national party declined to spend heavily on what it considered, from the outset, an all-but-lost cause in daunting political territory.
This tension — between party leaders who will not compete for seats they think they cannot win and an energized base loath to concede any contests to Republicans — risks demoralizing activists who keep getting their hopes up. It also points to a painful reality for Democrats: Despite the boiling fury on the left, the resistance toward Mr. Trump has yet to translate into a major electoral victory.Continue reading the main story
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In part, this is because the few special elections for Congress so far have taken place in red-leaning districts, where the near-daily barrage of new controversies involving Mr. Trump has not damaged him irreparably and where he remains fairly popular.
The Montana contest was the second special House election this year in a conservative district where rank-and-file progressives rallied behind their candidate only to see Washington-based Democrats shrink from the fight as Republicans launched ferocious attacks to ensure victory.
In Kansas last month — in a Wichita-area district that is even more conservative than Montana — national Republican groups stepped in to ensure that another lackluster candidate, Ron Estes, pulled out a win, while the Democratic nominee, James Thompson, waited in vain for his party’s cavalry to ride in.
“If the national Democratic Party would start getting more involved in these races earlier, then maybe we could flip them,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview. “It’s frustrating.”
For Republicans, the outcome in Montana, where Mr. Gianforte apologized in his victory speech late Thursday night to the reporter he had attacked, is likely to calm nerves at least for a while, staving off what the party feared would be a full-blown panic if Mr. Gianforte lost on such favorable turf. Washington-based Republican strategists had grown increasingly pessimistic about the race in recent weeks, bemoaning their candidate’s political deficiencies and predicting a narrow victory.
For Democrats, though, the contest pointed to an increasingly heated disagreement over where the party has a realistic chance to win. Party officials in Montana and progressive activists beyond the state’s borders grew frustrated last month watching outside Republican groups savage Mr. Quist as Democratic groups remained on the sidelines.
After a special House election in Georgia in which the Democrat Jon Ossoff received more than 48 percent of the vote — nearly averting a runoff and demonstrating the extent of voter enthusiasm on the left — Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat facing re-election next year, called Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, and implored him to consider spending money on Mr. Quist in the final weeks of the Montana race, according to two Democratic strategists briefed on the call. Mr. Tester also contacted the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, to see if he would carry the same message to the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California.
But House Democratic officials make no apology for their prudence, believing they are more likely to claim the 24 seats needed to capture the House majority in suburban districts with highly educated voters, where anger at Mr. Trump runs high. That includes districts like the one in suburban Atlanta, previously represented by Health Secretary Tom Price, where both parties have poured tens of millions of dollars into a contest that looms all the more consequential after the Democratic defeats in Kansas and Montana.
Even this week, just two days before the Montana vote, Mr. Luján announced new spending in the Georgia race. And in private, Mr. Luján was telling other House Democrats that Mr. Quist stood little chance, based on private polls showing Mr. Gianforte with a healthy, consistent lead of about 10 percentage points, according to one of those present at a closed-door meeting of the caucus. After the election was called, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee circulated a memo declaring that it had “refused to waste money on hype.”
On Friday, Democratic leaders emphasized that Mr. Quist had performed better than the party’s past congressional candidates in Montana, apparently benefiting from the enthusiasm of rank-and-file Democrats even as he fell well short of victory. The party’s nominees, they noted, are outpacing their predecessors on fairly forbidding terrain, and Democratic voters are participating at higher rates than Republicans, despite being outnumbered in these districts.
But other Democrats acknowledged that they must work harder to make inroads with voters who live far beyond major cities and their suburbs, if they want to pick up seats like the one Mr. Gianforte just captured.
While both Mr. Trump and key Republican policy proposals, like the American Health Care Act, are broadly unpopular in public polling, the president and his party retain a strong hold over rural America, potentially limiting the map on which Democrats can compete next year.
Representative Joseph Crowley of New York, the chairman of the Democratic caucus, said that the outcome in Montana had come as little surprise, and that he took heart that it was “not an easy struggle” for Republicans to retain a normally safe seat.
But Mr. Crowley said that his party’s approach to competing in rural areas was a work in progress, and that Democrats were still honing a positive message on the economy and jobs ahead of the 2018 campaign.
“What it says is we can be competitive in rural districts in states like Montana,” Mr. Crowley said of the special election, adding: “With the right candidate, with the right resources.”
The first element of that formula was on the minds of many Democrats on Friday, looking back at the avalanche of opposition research Republicans used against Mr. Quist as a sign that party leaders need to intervene more in primaries to ensure better candidates.
“I’m for grass-roots politics, but if you’re going to actually win seats, you need to focus on helping candidates who will be the most potent for the general election,” said David Axelrod, the veteran Democratic strategist, holding up Mr. Ossoff as an example of someone party officials had coalesced around early. “That’s one of the reasons there’s a competitive race there now.”
National Democratic strategists were deeply skeptical of Mr. Quist from the outset: The party’s campaign committee and House Majority PAC, a Democratic “super PAC,” dedicated only modest sums to the contest. Both groups faced harsh criticism from the left for holding back while Republican groups pounded Mr. Quist early in the race, driving up his personal unpopularity and effectively disqualifying him in the eyes of many voters.
But by not finishing more closely, Mr. Quist mitigated the postelection grumbling on the left. Two groups that had stoked enthusiasm for him — Our Revolution, a committee backed by Senator Bernie Sanders, and Democracy for America, a grass-roots liberal organization — applauded Mr. Quist for his effort but declined to fan grievances against the Democratic Party establishment.
The party will face a more telling test of its favored strategy on June 20 in the Georgia runoff. Democrats are more optimistic about that contest, and the Montana defeat increases pressure on the party to deliver a special election victory at last.
“That race becomes more of an actual test of what might happen in 2018,” Mr. Axelrod said.
The good news for Democrats is that Republicans will be unable to replicate across the map next year the kind of multimillion-dollar spending blitzes they have mounted in this year’s special elections.
Yet while it may be possible for Democrats to win control of the House without staking their fortunes on states and districts like Montana’s at-large congressional seat, the implications of being less competitive in rural precincts could have graver consequences in the Senate, where Democrats are defending a cluster of seats in conservative, sparsely populated states — including Montana.
“Democrats have to compete in Western states and rural areas,” said Tom Lopach, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to Mr. Tester. “For Democrats to have a governing majority, they have to listen to folks in rural America.”
Mr. Lopach, who led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2016, said that writing off rural voters would be a betrayal of “our governing philosophy of standing up for working folks and all Americans.”