Story highlights

Democrats argue Gianforte's narrow win shows voters are fed up with the Republican agenda

Republicans argue the results are proof once and for all that the base isn't abandoning Trump

Bozeman, Montana CNN  — 

Looking up at the large projection of vote totals in the ballroom of the Hilton Garden Inn on Thursday night, Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann looked relaxed and promised, “It ain’t gonna be close.”

The scene would not have been surprising a week ago, when Republican Greg Gianforte, a wealthy Bozeman businessman, was widely expected to win Montana’s special election against folk singer Rob Quist. But in the race’s final 36 hours, a reporter accused Gianforte of “body slamming” him at a campaign event, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, and three major newspapers pulled their endorsements of him before polls opened Thursday morning.

The effect of those whirlwind events may never be entirely known. By the time they happened Wednesday, about 73% of the absentee vote was already in, with Derek Oestreicher, director of state elections and voter services telling CNN that the Montana Secretary of State’s office had already received nearly 260,000 of the total 358,000 ballots that went out.

The May 25 special election also set a record in Montana politics. A Center for Politics analysis found that the congressional race was more expensive than any house race in the state since at least the 1990s. In the final days of the campaign, outside spending rose to $7.2 million, with more than $1 million coming right at the end. Outside Republican groups spent significantly more than their Democratic counterparts – $5.6 million to about $1 million, a fact that might cause progressives to ask why the national party didn’t jump in sooner to boost Quist.

Already, Montana’s bizarre special election and Gianforte’s win are being cast as a referendum on events in Washington and a projection of what’s to come. But is that fair?

Democrats argue the fact that Gianforte didn’t win by 20 percentage points like President Donald Trump did in November shows voters are fed up with the President and the Republican agenda. They say Montana’s election – like races in Georgia and Kansas – is a bad omen for Republicans heading into 2018.

“Republicans nationally have to be very nervous considering how much they spent, how many resources they sent here,” Matt McKenna, an adviser to the Quist campaign, told CNN.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue the opposite, pointing out Thursday night that the results in Montana are proof once and for all that the base isn’t abandoning Trump despite a high-profile investigation into whether his campaign had ties to Russia.

“I think it shows the people of Montana still support Donald Trump’s agenda,” Essmann said.

But Montana’s election may be an unreliable arbiter of what’s to come in races across the country. After all, the race here featured a banjo-playing, first-time Democratic candidate, and many of Montana’s voters cast absentee ballots before the alleged assault even took place. The events that transpired here won’t be easily replicated.

“All politics are local,” said Art Wittich, a Gianforte supporter. “It comes down to two candidates.”

Not only did the final hours of the campaign center around a bombshell assault allegation that took reporters to the sheriff’s office rather than the polls, but throughout most of the campaign Quist and Gianforte weren’t just talking about Trump.

Quist tried to make the health care debate in Washington a central component of his campaign, but Gianforte didn’t fully embrace the Republican House-passed bill from the beginning, arguing it was rushed and not fully baked. His own campaign staff said Gianforte wouldn’t have voted for it.

Many of the biggest issues in the Montana special were local.

Democratic attacks against Gianforte centered around an easement disagreement he had with the state over a boundary along the East Gallatin River, which Democrats used to paint Gianforte as against public lands.

Republicans attacked Quist for saying in an early interview with The Bozeman Daily Chronicle that he might support a gun registry in a state with a strong sportsman history. That attack led to Quist airing an ad in which he literally fired a gun at a TV.

Republicans also brought out attack ads against Quist that featured a local contractor that said Quist stiffed him for work he did.

At the end of the day, it might be the case that trying to fit Montana into a national political box is a stretch.

“Montana speaks for itself,” Craig Morgan, a Gianforte supporter from Belgrade, Montana, said Thursday night.

A pair of congressman criticized the newly elected lawmaker Friday morning.

MISSOULA, MT - MAY 24:  Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte talks with supporters during a campaign meet and greet at Lambros Real Estate on May 24, 2017 in Missoula, Montana.  Greg Gianforte is campaigning throughout Montana ahead of a May 25 special election to fill Montana's single congressional seat. Gianforte is in a tight race against democrat Rob Quist.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Some MT voters unfazed by body-slam charges
02:22 - Source: CNN

“If you can’t handle tough questions from a reporter, you will have a real tough time handling tough questions from constituents,” Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on “New Day.” “His job is to be an elected representative in our democracy.”
And Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor said of his fellow Republican: “No question the behavior is unacceptable. I saw Congressman Moulton on there speaking about how he’s recruiting veterans who have been in tougher situations; I am too. If you are a veteran, call me up.”

“But I will tell you it is unacceptable behavior,” the former Navy SEAL told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.” “And to say otherwise would be false, obviously. But Montanans spoke very clearly.”

CNN’s Eugene Scott contributed to this report.