Commentary: Lessons from Montana
By Josh Kurtz
Maryland is not Montana.
Still, there are lessons to be learned here from the recent Montana special congressional election – and from a handful of other political developments that have taken place since President Trump’s election.
There has been a surge of Democratic and progressive energy since Trump was elected – countless rallies around the country, record donations to Democratic candidates in special elections, and speculation, among both partisans and clear-eyed analysts, that 2018 could be a very, very good year for Democrats.
And yet, except for a couple of special legislative elections in New York state, Democrats haven’t won anything yet. Montana’s special election, which saw an unpopular Republican win even though he body-slammed a reporter 24 hours before the polls closed, was the latest Democratic disappointment.
Obviously, Montana is a tougher sell for Democrats generally than Maryland is. Trump won the state by 20 points. A Democrat has not won a House election there since 1994. The previous congressman, Ryan Zinke – now Trump’s Interior secretary – won his election last November by 16 points.
So in a certain way, Democrat Rob Quist’s 6-point loss last week to Republican Greg Gianforte is an improvement for the Democrats – a moral victory, even. But moral victories only go so far. They don’t help you take back the House or flip the Senate. They don’t blunt Trump’s agenda or send a message to Republicans around the country.
Sure, Quist came close to beating Gianforte. And earlier this year a Democrat came within 7 points of stealing a special congressional election in a conservative Kansas district that Trump had carried with 60 percent. Both signals of surprising Democratic energy.
But why shouldn’t Quist have won? Democrats in Montana control the governorship and one U.S. Senate seat. They’ve won four straight gubernatorial elections, and between 2007 and 2015 they controlled both Senate seats.
Gianforte was a deeply flawed candidate – he had lost the 2016 gubernatorial election to Steve Bullock, the Democratic incumbent. He was accused of being a carpet-bagger. He had made a section of his property that had previously been used to access public lands off-limits, to the howls of hunters and anglers.
But Quist was equally flawed. He was a political neophyte – a bluegrass musician who had never run for office, had some trouble with the tax man, and espoused positions that were plainly out of the mainstream for Montana.
Which brings us to the lessons for Maryland Democrats:
1. Candidates and campaigns matter. It’s a cliché. But elections are never won on paper. Why is this important for Maryland? Because many Democratic strategists think the environment in 2018 will be so favorable that enough Democratic voters will “come home” and oust popular Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Have these Democrats not learned anything from 2014? They’ve got to have a good, personable, nimble nominee who makes a persuasive case for why voters should fire Hogan and hire him. Voter registration and demographic trends aren’t enough.
2. You can’t just rage against Trump. Trump’s obnoxious and unqualified, his administration is engulfed in chaos, and his policies could be disastrous for the nation. But many people support Trump and his agenda. Some admire his candor and his unconventional demeanor. And it is very hard to equate Hogan with Trump. Yes, it’s fair to call out Hogan for not addressing certain aspects of Trump’s agenda and their potential impact on Maryland. But the daily Trump=Hogan meme being advanced by certain Democrats isn’t going to work.
3. Don’t expect bad behavior to backfire. Trump was elected. Gianforte was elected. Hogan isn’t them. But Hogan, despite the bipartisan, nice-guy persona he wants the world to see, isn’t above calling the teachers’ union “thugs,” doesn’t hesitate to throw partisan jabs, is peevish with reporters when they ask probing questions, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Inevitably, he will rail against the Democrats, seek retribution against lawmakers he especially doesn’t like, and show flashes of his “my way or the highway” personality. And a certain segment of the electorate will love it.
4. The Bernie Effect ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Trump is a unifying figure for Democrats in many ways, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still divided. It’s true that much of the energy in the party nationally is coming from the so-called Bernie Sanders wing. But the party establishment still wins most of the time – and in a state where Hillary Clinton beat Sanders by 28 points in the 2016 presidential primary, that’s significant. Sanders spent the final weekend of the Montana special election campaigning with Quist. He offered a full-throated endorsement of a candidate to lead the California Democratic Party who narrowly lost in a contentious election. How much juice is he going to have in Maryland, where the Miller-Cardin-Hoyer Axis has held sway for so long? What does that mean for, say, Ben Jealous’ gubernatorial bid?
The 2017 election cycle is still unfolding, and it has heavy implications for 2018. A special congressional election in Georgia later this month could be telling. The Democrats should win back the New Jersey governor’s mansion in November, and polls show them leading the gubernatorial race in Virginia at the moment. They could head into next year with a nice head of steam.
But Democrats cannot make any assumptions about the 2018 environment and Hogan’s vulnerabilities. More important, they’ve got to come up with a message that resonates and a fresh slate of energetic candidates who will appeal not just to the party base, but to a wide swath of understandably skeptical voters.